How Far, How Fast Montana’s Reputation has Fallen

As most people know, building a good reputation doesn’t happen overnight. In the case of a state like Montana, it took a long time to become known as “the last best place” — and we did it primarily due to the long-term care we took of our natural wonders.

Now, only one year after the GOP took over every statewide office, the Legislature, and governorship, Montana’s national and international reputation is on the ropes and going down thanks to the thoughtless, short-term, and brutal policies that have replaced long-term stewardship for the land, waters, and wildlife with which the Big Sky State was once famous.

It seems almost impossible that our governor and Legislature could somehow be unaware of the treasures with which they were granted oversight and care when they stepped into public office. Do these so-called public servants think the millions of people who visit Montana every year come to look at mining Superfund sites, clearcut stump fields, and hugely polluting coal-fired generators? Or maybe to have staring contests with the blank-eyed cattle chewing their cuds?

I don’t think so. Montana has been seen as one of the few places left in the Lower 48 where one can actually catch trout that didn’t come from a hatchery, but are wild and reproducing naturally. Those trout that have sparked the dreams of millions of young and old anglers exist here for one reason — we used to have a non-degradation water policy that preserved our crystalline streams and all the life they supported.

But our brilliant leaders have decided to forego measuring pollutant discharges numerically in favor of “narrative standards” that are already being challenged in court and are viewed very skeptically by the EPA that could, if they decide the “narratives” are ineffective, replace state authority for enforcing water quality. That would be the opposite of what our governor and legislature intended — but we’re getting used to that outcome, aren’t we?

Likewise, Montana still has nearly all the native species that existed when Lewis and Clark rolled through more than two centuries ago. We still have the national mammal — the iconic American bison. We still have populations of wildlife that are on the endangered species list for the simple reason that they are primarily extinct in most of the country. Mountain lions, wolves, grizzly bears, and lynx still roam our mountains and plains … and are struggling to simply do what their species have done since time immemorial.

But now, wolves aren’t allowed to be wolves and weed out the sick and weak in our justifiably famous elk, deer and antelope herds. No, now wolves are relegated to targets for sport killing, trapping with snares, night scopes, and even aerial slaughter (calling it “hunting” degrades the very term.) And what a mighty symbol of all Montana has become having a governor who is nationally viewed with disgust for having shot a collared wolf from Yellowstone National Park while it was caught in a trap. What a man!

The thing about reputations is once you lose a good reputation it’s dang near impossible to get it back. Does anyone really think hunting grizzly bears is going to restore Montana’s reputation? Or drilling mines under wilderness areas that threaten to drain their lakes? Or endlessly fighting to keep outmoded and enormously polluting coal-fired power plants running?

No, every day the once-stellar reputation of our wonderful state is diminished nationally and internationally by the actions of public officials with the short-sighted goal of more profits at any price. And as a result of their brutal policies we’re losing the true wealth with Montana was once blessed.

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Daily Montanan, where this essay originally appeared.