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Giving Away the Last Best Place

Where are the "Montana Friendly" Businesses?

by PAT WILLIAMS

Through the years we have heard a lot of misplaced complaining that Montana isn’t "business friendly." It is now dawning on us that we need more businesses that are "Montana friendly."

For 60 years we have heard the drumbeat about Montana’s so-called attitude. Year-after-year, usually just prior to the convening of our state’s legislature, the rumble starts: Montana is not a good place to do business, Montana is not business-friendly.

Those chants began in the 1950s following the loosening of Anaconda Mining Company’s strangle hold on the state’s politics, economy and media. A new strategy of persuasion, whining actually, was developed by industry; one designed to convince Montana’s various governmental levels to provide significant preferences to businesses, most notably the largest corporations. For half a century, the largess has flowed: public giveaways of our land, water, access, and always, always tax breaks for the big boys.

Perhaps a series of events have reversed or at least slowed those trends. Our largest businesses, our wealthiest landowners have been caught at what they obviously believe is the privilege of corporate control. Big business first overplayed its hand beginning in the late 1990s when the Montana Power Company convinced our state’s Governor Marc Racicot and the Republican-led legislature to deregulate the electricity business. The results: soaring electric rates, unemployment, state red ink, millions of dollars in lost pensions and, for a few insider corporate executives, windfall incomes-all combined to get the attention of Montanans.

On the heels of that debacle came the public’s bailout of runaway mining companies. Montana, in only the past few years, has covered 34 million dollars in mining company bond forfeitures and settlement costs for land reclamation and water treatment. Our state legislature, which adjourned in April of this year, ordered the appropriation of an additional 1.2 million dollars in each of the next 19 years for water treatment at the abandoned mine site of Zortman near the Fort Belknap and Rocky Boy Reservations.

Not very "Montana friendly" is it.

Another milestone in business’s most recent bad attitude toward our state involves the critically important issue of our access to our own rivers. Montana’s renowned Ruby River is the latest to be claimed by corporate executives. It is advertised by one company, Crane Meadow Lodge, as a private river. Tragically they and others are turning that myth into reality with virtually 100 percent of the Ruby’s banks in conservation easements owned by wealthy non-Montanans. At least one large corporation, The James M. Cox, Jr. Foundation, has refused to contribute to The University of Montana until our state becomes "more appreciative of their presence in Montana."

And then, of course, we have the effort of one large, out-of-state owned business, The Resort at Paws Up, to purloin our state’s best know moniker "The Last Best Place." Although that business now denies any attempt to trademark and thus own our well-known phrase, it nonetheless has filed 8 trademark applications for exclusive use of our words; with the first three applications filed Aug. 13, 2001.

Throughout the 114 years of our existence as a state, we Montanans have provided our muscle, media, water and wealth to assist the development of corporations. We Montanans have striven to be business friendly. Is it asking too much for business to return the favor?

PAT WILLIAMS served nine terms as a U.S. Representative from Montana. After his retirement, he returned to Montana and is teaching at The University of Montana where he also serves as a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West.