The agenda of the recent Rocky Mountain Power Shift conference held at the University of Montana – training students how to organize to obstruct responsible development of Montana’s natural resources– was certainly disturbing considering the tax base our resources provide to fund education in our state, not to mention the thousands of family wage job opportunities that accompany it.
Looking further into who the sponsors were, one sees that two of the platinum sponsors were the current presidents of UM and Montana State University, which also sponsored the conference. This left me wondering what the rest of Montana’s citizens would think of their universities underwriting this kind of activism and the leaders of these institutions attending as keynote speakers and vociferously supporting it.
While Montana has seen this kind of “grassroots organizing” on our campuses before, this is the first I am aware of that has had this level of endorsement from the highest positions of our higher ed institutions. For example, in 1988 the Wilderness Association held seminars at UM for undergraduate and graduate students, telling them that what they needed to do was appeal and litigate U.S. Forest Service timber sales to cripple the milling infrastructure in the state. The “message” was they needed to be “nitpicky, philosophical, imaginative and exhaustive” in the appeals process so when they threw it at the wall something would stick in litigation. They claimed doing so would create a judicial juggernaut that would take years to sort out resulting in a collapse of supply that the mills could not survive without. And they could get paid to do it.
We’ve lost 27 commercial sawmills, countless ma-and-pa outfits, and thousands of timber industry jobs as a result of exactly what they were describing. UM was complicit in allowing these seminars to happen on campus and even went as far as allowing the more radical members of so-called environmental groups to organize on campus. The university wasn’t brazen enough to actually sponsor the “conflict industry” events back then though.
Today, we have UM and MSU co-sponsoring, and the presidents of these institutions keynoting and proudly displaying their platinum-level support for Obstructionism 101. There were 42 workshops offered at the conference. The Sierra Club was there teaching litigation tactics and how to create a business model on the conflict, Energy Justice Network lecturing why biomass power generation is “dirty energy,” Blue Skies Campaign describing how Montana’s coal development represents an assault on the working class, the National Wildlife Federation imploring students to include sportsmen into their global warming action agenda against the Keystone XL pipeline, the Montana Wilderness Association discussing the “promise and perils” of collaboration, etc.
The latter workshop is one that really poured salt into some old wounds for me. I fully support bringing diverse interests together as a means to work toward productive outcomes and recognize that the Wilderness Association has in recent years participated in collaborations attempting to accomplish those ends, but sponsoring and participating in a conference that is applauding civil disobedience organizers and teaching litigation tactics undermines the organization’s claim that it is sincere in wanting to step beyond the tools of the past and work cooperatively in the future.
Higher ed institutions are supposed to be a marketplace of opposing viewpoints that foster an atmosphere that helps individuals learn from a balance of worldviews. The fact is this conference and its substance fell well short of balance and smacked of indoctrination. And unfortunately, this marks a chapter of Montana obstructionism on a whole new level. MSU, UM, its law school and others have proven they know how to crush industries training the next generation by convincing them that even dead trees should be managed in 35,000-foot plumes of smoke, and burning culled wood fiber to make electrons is unacceptable because it produces CO2 and makes a stump.
I’m not sure what I am more furious about – the “conflict industry” that is continually assembling the machinery of economic destruction to unleash on our state, or the fact that there has been an atmosphere created at our universities that allows them the ability and the tools to do it in broad daylight – right in front of us.
Montana Sen. Chas Vincent of Libby represents Senate District 1.