With the 2013 session of the Montana Legislature about to convene, hunters, anglers and those who value Montana’s outdoor amenities had better prepare to become involved. The 2011 Legislature gave us fair warning that things such as privatizing stream access (House Bill 309) blocking acquisition of wildlife habitat (HB272) liberalizing laws to restore cyanide heap leach mining (Senate Bill 306) and even efforts to dilute our constitutional right to a clean environment (HB292) remain on the “conservative” political agenda. What irony.
The exceptional fish and wildlife resources of today’s Montana stand as testimony that our political parties were not always so ideologically dysfunctional. In fact, 2013 marks the 100th anniversary of the 1913 session of the Montana Legislature, which designated the Sun River Game Preserve. It also marks the 50th anniversary of the 1963 session which passed the first Stream Preservation Act in the nation. The fish and wildlife resources we cherish today did not simply show up. Those cultural amenities are the result of enlightened citizens, political action and diligent administration.
In 1913 Montana’s wildlife had been commercially extirpated to near extinction. State Sen. T.O. Larson, R-Choteau, introduced “An Act to Establish a Game Preserve in the Rocky Mountains, for the Protection of Game Animals and Birds.” The Senate passed the measure 26-0. The vote in the House was similar at 62-2. We now embrace the Rocky Mountain Front and the wild lands to the west because of their awesome natural beauty and exceptional wildlife abundance.
As Montana developed, meandering streams were often bulldozed into straight channels, severely reducing trout populations. In the 1960s, highway construction was ramping up and anglers sought to protect trout habitat. A campaign to protect the steams was launched by the Montana Junior Chamber of Commerce and in 1963 the “Stream Preservation Act” was passed to preserve the habitat trout required. It was the first of its kind in the nation and it was contentious. The bill was written so that it had to be renewed in two years. When renewal came in1965, the bill passed the House 82-1 and the Senate 55-0. Both bills were signed by a conservative governor with a conservation ethic. Montana’s trout fishing is world renowned and as the Clark Fork River comes back to life, trout reside in stream channels saved for them a half century ago.
These are two examples of a conservation ethic expressed by both conservative and liberal Montana politicians capable of thinking beyond narrow political ideology. They are also the reason our Montana summers are spent in pursuit of trout our autumns are blessed with days afield and our image as “The Last Best Place” remains valid.
By contrast, today’s political partisans run like ideological lemmings to the sea. Twenty-first century neoconservatives seem incapable of embracing conservation while they march lock-step to the drum beat of renewed corporate exploitation of our Treasure State. The 2013 version of the Montana Legislature will soon be in session and hunters, anglers and outdoor enthusiasts who treasure our state need to prepare to participate. We have a beautiful legacy to shepherd into the future and history – at least – demands our participation.
Jim Posewitz of Helena is a former executive director of the Cinnabar Foundation.