Thankful for Montana’s Constitution

Every year about this time we take stock of our lives, loves, family, friends and being able to call Montana “home.” One of the great joys of living here are the rights and protections provided by the Montana Constitution — and those should never be taken for granted.

When you think about the condition of most of the United States, it’s obvious why we’re now experiencing such a surge of in-migrants. Montanans have a long history of being considered kind and generous people and the so-called “rat race” hasn’t yet come to define our lives here. We are not stuck on 8-lane freeways crawling along in stop and go traffic while road rage and frustration boils. Nope, in a very short time you’re in and out of any town — and when you’re out, the real and unique “wealth” of Montana comes shining through.

Consider, for instance, the stunning fact that virtually all of the native species that existed when Lewis and Clark’s expedition went through the state over 200 years ago — and that’s anything but a fluke. In fact, Montana’s long-standing dedication to conservation of public lands and waters is guaranteed by our Constitution, which has been internationally lauded for exactly that reason.

As the Preamble boldly states, our citizens are grateful “for the quiet beauty of our state, the grandeur of our mountains, the vastness of our rolling plains” that we desire to “improve the quality of life, equality of opportunity and to secure the blessings of liberty for this and future generations.”

Following that eloquent declaration, it goes on to mandate that: “The state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.” Under “inalienable rights” Montanans are guaranteed “the right to a clean and healthful environment.”

And how does that happen? For one thing, the legislature is tasked to “provide adequate remedies for the protection of the environmental life support system from degradation” and “prevent unreasonable depletion and degradation of natural resources.” The Constitution also requires that “all lands disturbed by the taking of natural resources shall be reclaimed” — and established the $100 million Resource Indemnity Trust Fund to provide “inviolate” revenue for that purpose.

These are guarantees that simply do not exist in our national Constitution. Likewise, the Montana Constitution’s guaranteed “right of privacy” has been called “the most elegant and uncompromising privacy protection ever written” by the Florida Law Review. That foundational right was further strengthened in the recent election by including the right to digital privacy which the drafters could not have considered in 1972, but that today’s Montanans realize as essential.

We also have the “Right to know,” which states “no person shall be deprived of the right to examine documents or to observe the deliberations of all public bodies or agencies of state government and its subdivisions.” Again, that’s a right not contained in the national Constitution, but which has helped Montanans ensure open and transparent government for the last half century.

As we go about our daily lives, it’s easy to forget that the Montana we know and love didn’t happen by accident. Our predecessors had the vision and wisdom to enshrine these rights and duties after the vast corruption of the legislature, media, local governments, and courts by the Anaconda Company. And we continue to struggle to remediate the almost unimaginable environmental destruction across the decades since “The Company” disappeared.

So this Thanksgiving, while being grateful for “our many blessings,” take a moment to remember it’s our Constitution that, in so many ways, leads and protects both us and our beautiful state.

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