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Recognizing the many ways Montana's got it good

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Every year about this time I leave the politics behind and write a column voicing thanks for our lives here in Montana. This year, that's particularly easy with national politics in a state of chaos. You have Sarah Palin gracing the cover of Newsweek in running shoes and short shorts while the Democrats pat themselves on the back over a do-nothing health care bill. In the meantime, the Republican Party moves further toward the far right edge of reality, perhaps never to return. But here in Montana, despite the recession, we have plenty of reasons to focus our attention locally and leave the national nuthouse behind on this Thanksgiving Day.

This being the end of hunting season and all, there are plenty of Montanans of every political persuasion who are thankful for what they were able to harvest from the mountains and plains of our great state this year. We are fortunate to still be able to take healthy wild game to feed ourselves and our families. In Montana, hunters can simply walk into a sporting goods store and purchase a deer or elk license—and often more than one where there's an over-abundance of game. But that's not the case everywhere—and certainly not something we should take for granted.

In Utah, for instance, you must apply for a permit, drawn by lottery. If you are one of the few to be successful, you then get to hunt their one-week general big game season. Given the obvious physical similarities between Utah and Montana, it's somewhat of a mystery why their wild animals are so limited. Then again, perhaps the Beehive State is buzzing a little too much to take care of their game these days, while here in Big Sky Country we put a higher value on our native wildlife and the habitat it takes to maintain healthy, harvestable populations.

Whatever the reasons, you can bet there's a lot more game in Montanans' freezers than in most other states in the nation. And as we look around at the uncertain economic times and the hardships visited on our population, it's easy to be grateful our friends and family can still fill those tags and even have enough to share with those less fortunate.

We can also give thanks for a second good water year in a row. Considering the last 10 years of severe drought and the tremendous impacts it has caused all across the state, the ample snowfall and wet springs have saved us from all-too-familiar smoke-filled summers. Instead, we are surrounded this year by green lands, rivers and lakes filled with fish, and snow-capped peaks to remind us of years long gone in the onslaught of global warming.

Economically, too, we have reasons to be glad to live in Montana. The geographic location of our far northern state has often been blamed for the lack of a vibrant economy. After all, you have to go a long ways to bring anything into Montana and an equally long, if not longer, distance to get goods out to market. While this means we haven't fully participated in many of the economic bubbles that have swept the nation, it also means we haven't been subjected to the harsh conditions the collapse of those bubbles ultimately produces. Our grains still grow on the northern plains, cattle wander our fields, and our population, while inching toward a million, continues to advance at a fairly steady pace.

While the impacts from the recession have been crippling in many states, with unemployment reaching 10 percent nationally and 15 percent or higher in many areas, Montana has largely been spared catastrophic economic trauma. Sure, we're still down near the bottom of the barrel in per capita income levels, but our populace is dealing with less than 7 percent unemployment, one of the lowest rates in the nation. If the post-recession economy booms again, we will likely lag behind the rest of the nation. But what some would see as boring stability sure beats the speculative rollercoaster of boom and bust driving so many from their homes across our country.

We can also be thankful our state is one of the few that remains fiscally solvent in this crisis. Many states, such as California, are in turmoil over their budgetary disasters as they wrestle with the enormous problems that come when massive government spending collides with massively reduced revenues.

Montana, however, still has a fund balance in our state budget, in no small part due to the very nature of our political landscape. Both Republicans and Democrats routinely seek to live within our means—a lesson the land itself has driven home for generations of Montanans. It's a lesson worth heeding when wish lists come to the legislature. And while some may curse the lack of single-party control of the state, this often-awkward balancing act has proven valuable. Republicans tend to give too many tax breaks to their wealthy patrons, which can and has drastically reduced state revenues, while Democrats are often prone to spend too much on government services, creating programs and bureaucracies that, while useful, can be difficult to sustain.

Finally, there's our clean environment. While far from perfect, Montana's air and water are cleaner than almost anywhere in the nation and we've been hard at work repairing past damage from resource extraction. It's easy to take for granted until you go somewhere else—where you can see the air and the rivers run brown.

We're lucky to live here, fellow Montanans, and we know it. So this year, when we sit at the table with our families and friends, let us give a moment of thanks for what Montana has given us—and a promise to do what we can to return her many favors.

Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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