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The boys (and girls) on the bus

Road-tripping with the Western Governor's Association



It’s 7:45 a.m. on Wednesday, June 18, and it’s already hot on bus B-2 as it lumbers out of the Holiday Inn Parkside parking lot for the Western Governors’ Association field trip. Following “the blue bus”—which carries Govs. Judy Martz, Dave Freudenthal (D-Wyo.), Janet Napolitano (D-Ari.), Dirk Kempthorne (R-Idaho), Interior Secretary Gale Norton, U.S. Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth and a handful of other VIPs—B-2 and six other school buses caravan through town toward I-90.

Like any good summer vacation, this one is highly choreographed. Leading the motorcade is a highway patrolman, then an unmarked police car, then a law enforcement minivan (“It’s a loaner,” assures one trooper), then the buses, then two more patrol cars. At each cross street from the Parkside to Highway 200, law enforcement has stopped traffic to ensure a seamless trip up to the forest. One bus rider points out a helicopter overhead. For the remainder of the day, the helicopter circles the tour at a distance.

There’s a wealth of expertise on B-2: officials from the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Department of Agriculture, plus scientists, loggers and conservationists. One has the feeling that with some cooperation and enough time, this single bus load could rewrite President Bush’s forest plan to make everyone happy. But as B-2 travels up 200, it becomes clear the group is a stew, not a melting pot. As tour guide and UM forestry professor Ron Wakimoto points out charred trees in the distance, there are a few fire-related questions, but mostly the conversation is small talk. Maybe the complementary buffet breakfast and snack bag—Mucho Mango Fruit Leather, Blue Diamond almonds, El Sabroso chips, etc.—have put everyone in such a good mood that no one wants to dampen the ride with politics. Instead, people chat quietly with their generally like-minded seat mates, or participate in a running debate over the worst named alma mater mascot—the winner by consensus being the Lambkins from Fort Collins High School in Colorado.

At UM’s Lubrecht Experimental Forest, there are presentations by a fire scientist and an economist supportive of Bush’s “treatment plan” for the forests. Afterward, the media are sequestered for a press conference to hear the politicians’ reactions. Perhaps the biggest political event ever to hit Missoula has drawn all the usual regional suspects—the Missoulian, Great Falls Tribune, Daily Inter Lake, KPAX, KUFM. But big-time in Montana is still small potatoes across the country, and non-regional media are thinly represented by the Arizona Republic and USA Today.

“The guy from the [New York] Times out of Denver used to come out, but he’s been rotated somewhere else and the new person hasn’t arrived yet,” says USA Today’s Tom Kenworthy. “The L.A. Times also would usually be here. I don’t know why they’re not.”

After Lubrecht is lunch. In the middle of the Big Larch campground, four chefs in tall, white mushroom hats carve steak and replenish macaroni salad. In total there are four entrees and four side dishes available, with freshly brewed ice tea and lemonade in glass decanters.

“I thought it’d be some old baloney sandwich,” says one of Gail Norton’s under secretaries.

When the paper plates and cloth napkins are taken away, it’s time to walk around the site and take in more presentations, but no one seems to be moving. The tour’s on a tight schedule and the microphone isn’t working properly, so Martz Communication Director Chuck Butler puts his fingers in his mouth and whistles like a camp counselor to get the group’s attention. This may be the reddest carpet Montana’s rolled out since Teddy Roosevelt’s visit, but it’s still Montana, where crude-yet-effective is good enough.

While others wander the site, Martz takes a break. She sits down on a bench cut from a 24-inch log and swings her legs beneath her. She’s chatting with a representative from the Colorado governor’s office and laughing. The Montana press, just a few yards away in the shade, take a break from swarming her. The governor seems relaxed, confident and in control, not the bumbling, foot-in-mouth politician that Montana columnists and editorial boards so often make her out to be.

The day is only half over, but the event already feels like it’s winding down. For the rest of the afternoon, the trip takes on a more casual tone. People are a little too full and a little too tired to keep up formalities. Most of the Montana press disappear to work on their stories, and the others are left with the kind of access that can rarely be bought for a hundred bucks, catered lunch or no. The reporter from the Arizona Republic spends the rest of the day not more than ten feet from Gov. Napolitano. A Greater Yellowstone Coalition representative, who has trouble getting the Wyoming governor’s chief of staff on the phone, walks right up to the man himself and gets a fifteen-minute conversation. British Columbia forester John Betts—the entirety of the trip’s international delegation—gets enough face time with Secretary Norton that he can go back and tell his boss that “the United States is eager to work with Canada on the issue of forest health.” Whatever that means.

The trip coils through the Seeley-Swan Valley all afternoon, stopping at the Pyramid Mountain Lumber Company and the Clearwater Stewardship Project for more presentations and tours—there’s even a drive-by of one of the world’s biggest larch trees. Then it comes time to turn the buses home.

With seven buses and as many marked and unmarked law enforcement cars, the motorcade is waved through a construction zone. Beyond the construction, more than a mile of cars is waiting so we don’t have to. Some gawk at the spectacle of officialdom, but at least two drivers flip the bird at the caravan. Bus B-2 laughs at the display and debates how the blue bus may have reacted. Most agree that the blue bus laughed, too.

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