The Montana Conservation Ethic

Dec 2, 2015

The Clean Power Plan is designed to reduce Montana’s contribution to the carbon pollution now affecting our climate and every person on earth. The steady flow of scientific verification along with daily weather reports demand action and political acknowledgement of a reality that must be addressed.

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Climate change will undeniably alter the landscape of Montana, and the very reasons many of us choose to live here. The research shows that as temperatures increase, so will the frequency and intensity of wildfires and drought. More winter precipitation will occur as rain, resulting in reduced snowpack, leading to smaller summer flows in our treasured streams and rivers. These predications are just a few of many with the potential to change Montana ecosystems. Importantly, these changes threaten to radically alter our hunting, fishing, and other outdoor recreation opportunities.

The need to address carbon pollution and climate change is real. It would be well to look at the conservation ethic held by the people of this state when working towards a solution. Montana has never been, nor will it ever be, a casual bystander in the energy debate given our abundance of natural resources. History attests, however, that the abundance has been balanced with a conservation ethic strong enough to lead a nation.

The conservation of natural resources has been part of Montana ever since there was a Montana. In the very first Territorial Legislature, James and Granville Stuart passed an act to restrict taking of fish to a hook and line. A few years later they tried to stop the slaughter of big game. Both of these actions were taken before Custer died in the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

More recently, the Montana conservation ethic blossomed out on the coal fields. In the 1970s the federal government and the energy industry sought to make Southeast Montana and Northeast Wyoming the “boiler-room-of-the-nation!” The federal/corporate North Central Power Study called for over forty coal fired power plants. The Yellowstone River would have been diverted to provide enough water to make these enormous coal plants function. At the time Montana mine land reclamation was voluntary. Montana was on the brink of becoming the Appalachia of the Great Plains. That didn’t happen because the people’s conservation ethic found expression through bi-partisan state legislative action. That action included: the toughest mine land reclamation law in the nation; a severance tax on coal; a Major Facility Citing Act; a new water law that could protect stream flow; and a State Constitution that included a right to a clean and healthful environment.

Flash forward fifty years: the Yellowstone River is still intact, and Colstrip has but four of those coal fired plants. We can thank the conservation ethic held by the people that had the foresight to know that our natural landscapes are worth preserving.

Once again, Montana is poised to lead the nation as The Clean Power Plan is debated and designed. We are a state known for our tenacity and ability to come together to solve problems. It is now more important than ever to support Governor Bullock’s plan to make the Clean Power Plan work for Montana by coming up with a solution that is both respectful of the communities impacted and welcoming to new wind and solar technologies.

The Clean Power Plan is the perfect opportunity to embrace, expand and apply the traditional Montana conservation ethic - this time, not only to preserve Montana’s landscape, but also to address the health of an entire planet.

Jim Posewitz is a longtime advocate for wildlife, wildlands, and sporting enthusiasts. He was named National Wildlife Federation 2015 Conservationist of the Year.