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GEORGE OCHENSKI: Montana’s Constitution and our inalienable rights

GEORGE OCHENSKI: Montana’s Constitution and our inalienable rights

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Good morning Missoula! Twelve years of writing weekly columns in the Missoula Independent came to an abrupt end early this month, setting off a firestorm of protest and a flood of support. Five days later, Sherry Devlin asked me to write for the Missoulian and I heartily accepted the offer after receiving nothing but encouragement from the column’s faithful readers.

So here’s a great big THANKS to Sherry, the Missoulian, and all the bloggers, readers and fellow writers for helping make the transition not only painless, but joyful. I’ll do my best to live up to the “no-holds-barred” political analysis lauded in the Missoulian’s pre-column ads.

But as happy as I am to be here, there’s a far more important event this week for Montanans to celebrate. Our state Constitution, widely hailed as one of the best and most progressive in the world, celebrates its 40th birthday. Written by and for Montanans, the 1972 Constitution signaled a sea change in the relationship between citizens, their government, and the corporations that do business in the state.

Perhaps the major driving force behind many of the provisions for open government, citizen rights and environmental protection came directly from Montana’s nearly century-long experience with the Copper Kings and the Anaconda Company. Their heavy-handed and corrupt dealing with the media, our Legislature and the courts in order to avoid regulation of their mining and smelting operations made them rich, but eventually turned the citizenry against them.

As most Montanans know, we still live today with the incredible environmental damage “The Company” left behind in the form of 10 square miles of toxic tailings near Opportunity; Butte’s moonscape of the Berkeley Pit, which continues to fill with poisonous water; 100 miles of the horribly polluted Clark Fork River; and the Anaconda Smelter, which is still surrounded by a mountain of black slag.

Determined that no corporation would so misuse Montana in the future, the visionary drafters of the Constitution made their priorities known in the Preamble, writing: “We the people of Montana grateful to God for the quiet beauty of our state, the grandeur of our mountains, the vastness of our rolling plains, and desiring to improve the quality of life, equality of opportunity and to secure the blessings of liberty for this and future generations do ordain and establish this constitution.”

The drafters were likewise straightforward in their declaration of Inalienable Rights, the first of which is “the right to a clean and healthful environment.” Those words ring loud in the halls of liberty and have been the basis for some of the state’s most important Supreme Court rulings.

To combat the potential corruption of government, the drafters included the outstanding provision that “no person shall be deprived of the right to examine documents or to observe the deliberations of state government and its subdivisions…” This Right-to-Know clause, which does not exist in the U.S. Constitution, prevents the kind of closed door dealings for which the Copper Kings were rightfully infamous and ensures Montanans that our government must operate in full view of our citizens.

These and the many other outstanding provisions of the Montana Constitution have served our citizens well for 40 years. But now, it seems, there are some who have forgotten the lessons and harsh experiences that led to their drafting.

Already there are those who wish to weaken or dissolve any barriers to wholesale exploitation of the state’s resources. Indeed, it’s not difficult these days to view Montana as a resource extraction colony where pipelines carry away oil and gas riches, coal trains plod endlessly westward to the sea, and transmission lines mar the Big Sky’s vast horizons.

We are still paying millions upon millions of dollars to remediate – not clean up – the legacy of a century’s worth of resource exploitation. And make no mistake, many of those millions are coming from taxpayers, not the companies and individuals responsible for the pollution.

There’s no better time than the 40th celebration of our Constitution to remember our past, recall how and why the environmental protections became the first priority of our inalienable rights and rededicate ourselves to maintaining those foundational rights.

So far, the silence from our politicians has been deafening. If anything, natural resource extraction seems to be a common theme, regardless of political party. But Montanans should never forget our hard-earned lessons. And come November, if extraction takes precedence over environmental protection, we should hold those candidates accountable with our votes.

George Ochenski writes a column for Monday’s Missoulian Opinion page. He can be reached via email at

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