Montana is becoming a conservation society in which the ethic of environmental sustainability dominates, observes former congressman Pat Williams. No longer is Montana's economy and culture primarily extractive, he says.
This may be self-evident to most of us, but the message hasn't broken through to the body politic. Our social values runneth past our political practice.
Whereas most Montanans support wolf recovery, for example, the 1995 Legislature voted for the "systematic destruction" of wolves. Lawmakers assign lawbreaking industries to police themselves. And Helena is constantly trying to erode the 1970s' high standard for public participation in public issues.
In short, conservation ethics are ascendant in almost every sector of society-except electoral politics. That's about to change, according to two new groups that have emerged to energize Montana's green vote.
"Politically, we were ahead of the game in the 1970s. Montana passed some enlightened laws. But now we're behind, and our politics are regressing. The conservation community has been out-organized," says Julia Page, co-chairperson of the newly formed Montana Conser-vation Voters. MCV recently was formed by environmental leaders statewide to become the political arm of Montana's conservation community.
"Montana conservationists have been active and organized in the policy-setting arena. But, quite frankly, we've been neither active nor organized in electing the policy setters themselves. MCV plans to change that situation," said Page, a Gardiner businesswoman. (In the interest of full disclosure, I serve as MCV's other volunteer co-chairperson.)
The other new group making representative democracy work for conservation is the Missoula-based Center for Environmental Politics, whose mission is to encourage conservationists to become more actively involved in the political process.
MCV and CEP have different and complementary missions. CEP, founded by Jeff Goin and Dan Funsch, is a tax-exempt organization that cannot engage directly in electoral politics. Instead, CEP recruits qualified leaders to seek elected or appointed offices.
Currently active in Helena, Dillon and Missoula, Funsch says CEP has successfully recruited 17 current office-holders in the past year, many of them to local boards dealing with zoning, water quality and county parks. One CEP publication is called "Water Quality Advisory Boards: What they are, what they do, and why you should be on one."
"We're trying to influence the organizational culture of our movement so that politics isn't a dirty word," says Funsch, a long-time environmental leader who also plays a mean accordion for the Velcro Sheep. "This idea is nothing new. This is exactly what the Christian Coalition has done for years."
In contrast, contributions to the membership-based MCV are not exempt from taxes, which allows the group to endorse candidates, contribute money and, most importantly, mobilize grassroots political campaigners. MCV is a non-partisan group committed to recruiting qualified Republicans, Democrats and candidates from other political movements, such as the Reform Party and New Party. National and state polls show strong citizen support for conservation policies regardless of political affiliation.
Particularly encouraging is the cooperative attitude of MCV and CEP, which have pledged to work together to recruit green candidates. For too long, Montana's conservation community has been preaching to the proverbial choir and arguing amongst itself. As a movement, it has lost resonance with the elective process, even as a majority of Montanans support conservation policies, such as the citizen initiative to ban cyanide heap-leach mines.
Moving more forcefully into the political arena will require conservationists to focus as much on developing solutions as identifying environmental problems. It will mean working with rural communities to find alternatives to the extractive excesses of the past. And it will mean wrestling with the emerging problems of the "New West," such as rural sprawl and expanding populations seeking the very quality of life we're trying to preserve. Ultimately, if it is to be successful, the conservation message must resonate with at least 51 percent of voters.
The immediate stake for green voters is the 2000 election, which will be the most important election in recent Montana history. Because of term limits, the five statewide offices, including governor, are open. The state land board will be controlled by newcomers. Nearly 50 legislative incumbents are barred from seeking re-election. And Sen. Conrad Burns, an environmental menace, faces a tough challenger.
Like CEP, MCV will be active at the local level. MCV's Missoula-area board members Molly Galusha, John Hirsh and Gary Holmquist will be organizing a Missoula MCV chapter this year. MCV chapters also are being organized in other Montana towns.
So for many environmental voters, recycling, using cloth shopping bags, and signing petitions won't be enough. Even as you read this, conservation voters are rolling up their sleeves in the hopes of making Nov. 7, 2000 the greenest election day in Montana history.