Montana’s 24th Governor and members of both legislative chambers were recently sworn into office, marking the 63rd time our Legislature has met since Montana joined the union in 1889. The halls of the state’s capitol were abuzz with people on a mission. Already, there are more than 2,000 proposed and introduced bills covering a gamut of issues.
The business of governance today is a far cry from when President Abraham Lincoln appointed Sidney Edgerton as Montana’s first Territorial Governor in 1864. However, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.“
What brought folks to Montana in the mid-1800s was the promise of land, minerals and timber. The shortage of good white pine in the Great Lakes states led the logging industry to move west. The construction of the railroad, plus increased mining, and agriculture all helped create a demand for and a way to market timber.
In our early days, eastern Montana had more logging activity than western Montana. However, there were a number of lumber mills in the Missoula and Bitterroot valleys, mostly associated with gold camps. In the 1870s and early 1880s, many small mills failed. However, within five years, they recovered due to large-scale hardrock mining and the construction of railroads through the area.
By 1884, mills west of the Continental Divide were supplying the Anaconda Copper Mining Company with 300,000 cords of wood a year for smelter fuel alone. In the mid-1880s, the Anaconda Copper mine was the most productive mine in the United States. The copper mine was using 4,000 board feet of timber a day in its mines.
Once the importance of timber to mining was recognized, mining operations formed their own sawmills. Railroad construction and maintenance created a huge demand for lumber. By the early 1900s, the nation’s railroads consumed about one-fifth of the timber harvested.
The Anaconda Copper Mine’s Butte and Montana Company mill was built at the mouth of the Stillwater and Whitefish Rivers east of Kalispell in the early 1890s. The main purpose was to produce lumber, which was the first product exported from the Flathead Valley after the railroad was completed in 1891.
In 1889, Montana (consisting then of 16 counties) received statehood with the election of our first governor. Gov. Joseph Toole, and 66 state legislators, convened the first legislative session amid heated partisan charges of voter fraud. Due to their bickering, a deadlocked chamber killed all the bills introduced that year.
Montana’s governing bodies continued to suffer growing pains over the next several years, but it is clear from early historic records, folks settling Montana relied primarily on agriculture, mining and timber for their livelihoods. Understanding the importance of Montana’s vast natural resources, the third legislature in 1893 officially adopted the state seal with the motto “Oro y Plata,” or “Gold and Silver.“
Over the years, Montana’s agriculture and natural resource industries have played an important role in the sustainability of our state’s economy. These industries created the pie that all other economic slices came from. This is still true today.
Tourism and health care have become extremely important to Montana’s economy, however, agriculture, mining and timber still jockey for the top five slots. Just like in the early days of our statehood, agriculture, mining and timber still create new wealth, new opportunities and new challenges.
It is now up to our state elected officials to realign priorities, solve challenges and provide opportunity for success. Montana’s timber industry is on the cusp of recovery. What happens in Helena over the next 90 days will be followed closely.
Just as Montana is made up of many parts, we are wired to work together and to help each other, and even though politics can be ugly, policy is the art of the possible. Only time will tell if we can move beyond the gridlock of the past and develop good policy for our future.
Julia Altemus is executive vice president of the Montana Wood Products Association, and writes from Missoula.