In medieval times, alchemists vainly sought the Philosopher’s Stone—a powerful substance that, used with a variety of spells and potions, could transmutate base metals into pure gold. They called fire, which they believed to be an element unto itself, phlogiston. Centuries later, the governor of Montana seeks to use fire as his philosopher’s stone to change the base metal of his environmental record into pure gold. In the process, he hopes to transmutate himself into The Environmental Governor. But like the alchemists of old, no matter the potions, chants or spells, he too is unlikely to pull a fast one on Mother Nature.
It is well known that Racicot has spent hundreds of hours flying around the country in the last year and a half stumping for his friend George W. Bush, the governor of Texas, who would be president of the United States. While “Markie” (as Bush has dubbed Racicot) denies he has ever discussed a position in the administration with Bush, the political buzz says there is a good chance old Markie might wind up as the next Secretary of the Interior. And therein lies the rub. Whomever sits in the Secretary of the Interior’s office is in a position to wield great influence over what’s left of America’s natural heritage.
It is no secret that George W. Bush has one of the worst environmental records of any governor in the U.S. today and that Texas, under Bush’s administration, has become one of the most polluted states in the nation. You name it, Texas has it these days—bad air, toxic wastes, poisoned waters—a full panoply of environmental ills that no one, except perhaps moguls of the oil and refinery industry, would wish on anyone. In the big game of national politics, however, protection of the environment still ranks high on the board as a major concern for most Americans. Markie and his pal Bush have a problem on their hands since they both have atrocious environmental records. What to do? This year’s drought, and the resulting forest fires, presented Markie with an opportunity. Lacking true environmental credentials, the governor turned to political alchemy to make some up.
When the dry forests began to burn, as dry forests always have, Racicot was off stumping for Bush like usual. As the red sun hung in our smoke-filled skies, Montana became the focus of the nation’s attention. Racicot, ever the political opportunist, decided that he could curry favor with Bush and the forest exploitation industry by blaming President Clinton’s roadless initiative and forest management policies for the fires. While the flames still burned and Montana’s citizens were being evacuated from their homes, he attacked.
Editorial boards across the state soundly trounced Racicot for his classless act, pointing out that the business of the governor should be dealing with the drought and the fires, not making political hay from the flames and smoke. Once the fires were out, they said, there would be plenty of time for politicians to climb up on their soap boxes and pontificate.
This caught Markie by surprise. For virtually all of his tenure, Racicot has maintained a teflon relationship with the mainstream press. Wary of his high popularity ratings, what tiny specks of criticism they tossed his way never stuck. But now, the tiny specks became huge clods—and they were sticking. Also, as more astute observers pointed out, some of the hottest fires were burning on state-managed forests that had already been heavily roaded and logged. In one of the classic about-faces in modern political times, Racicot reinvented himself, saying his greatest concern was “forest health,” not blaming the feds for the fires.
Leaping into the “forest health” arena is not something for which Markie is well equipped. In spite of the fact that he grew up in Libby, most of the forests that Racicot spends time around have already been turned into boards, nailed to the floor of the gym. Undaunted, he plunged on through the smoke with his jaunty band of natural resource advisors and timber industry lobbyists at his side.
Suddenly Marc Racicot became Mr. Forest Health. He was on national political talk shows, debating the current Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture. He was touring the fire camps. He was righteously indignant when some suggested he was toadying for the timber industry and seeking a way to cut more trees from the public domain. Such accusations were preposterous, he told them. His concern, his only concern, was not to cast blame, but to seek solutions and work together to restore “forest health.”
Just last week, at a Congressional sub-committee hearing, Racicot was joined in his quest for truth and wisdom by fellow politicos equally concerned about our forests. One of clearcutting’s best friends, Idaho’s Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage was there. So was our own Sen. Conrad Burns, a man so concerned about forest health that he once proposed logging the cottonwoods of eastern Montana. Even Congressman Rick Hill, who would open the Rocky Mountain Front for oil and gas development, had to pop in and join the deeply concerned policymakers searching for the elusive Philosopher’s Stone of forest health—not to blame anyone, mind you, just concerned about all those trees going to waste and creating such unhealthy conditions.
Perhaps we should be grateful to these dedicated public servants for their sudden, overwhelming concern for our forest heritage. Perhaps we should take Racicot’s election-year conversion to The Environmental Governor as the miracle it seems to be. Or perhaps, more wisely, we should scratch the surface of this alchemists’ hocus-pocus and reveal the basest of all metals that remains beneath the shiny political gloss.
George Ochenski has lobbied the Legislature since 1985, primarily on environmental, tribal and public interest issues. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed in “Independent Voices” do not necessarily reflect those of the Independent.