Jim Olsen, a Hamilton man who spearheads such diverse endeavors as military defense projects, Friends of the Bitterroot and SAFE, has announced his intention to run for House District 60 in the Montana Legislature, a position also sought by two-term incumbent Allan Walters. For voters in the Hamilton area, the choice could not be any more black and white.
Walters, a Republican, has spent much of his tenure either battling the federal government over the grizzly bear recovery plan or trying to reign in state government through tax cuts. By comparison, his Democratic challenger is proposing a rare course of action not seen in Ravalli County politics in many years: In a county known for its anti-government attitude, Olsen suggests that government can be a positive force in citizens’ lives.
What interests Olsen is bolstering the dismal local economy and reversing the poor job the state does at enforcing its own water quality laws. Government, he says, can and should play a positive role in both areas, an old-fashioned Democratic notion that seems to have passed out of fashion in Ravalli County.
Though Olsen would like to bring those ideals back into style, he doesn’t completely buy the Democratic party line. For example, he parts ways with the Democrats over the World Trade Organization, which he says destroys local economies by sending jobs to countries where labor is cheap and environmental protection laws weak or non-existent.
“It’s a bad idea,” he says of the WTO. “And it’s bad for Montana. The Democratic constituency was in Seattle (during last October’s WTO summit) in full force. So there’s a message there for Democrats: Let’s get back to the roots - the environmentalists, the blue collar workers. That’s what we need to get back to. We need a local economy so local communities can forge their own destinies.”
It may come as a surprise that Olsen supports a local timber industry. What he doesn’t believe in, however, is the economic model that typified the industry in the last decades of the 20th century. The now defunct Darby Lumber, for instance, needed to cut between 40 and 60 million board feet of timber a year to keep 100 people employed year round. Sixty million board feet, he says, is six times what the Bitterroot National Forest can sustainably produce.
By way of contrast, Olsen says, the Republican economic package relies on tax cuts and an unsustainable building boom, a combination that has produced suburban sprawl and a poorly funded local government that can’t afford to keep up with it.
What could happen, and should happen if Ravalli County is going to catch up economically, is the establishment of “the kind of economy that encourages us to trade with each other and do it within the limitations of preserving the wild lands we have.
“I think most Montanans want to live in a clean environment and want a good job,” Olsen says. “I think government can make that happen, and should.”