Stop the Gridlock Plaguing Development

By Beacon Staff

The term “the good old days” keeps replaying in my head triggered by recent news stories about the economy. Having been born and raised in Butte surrounded by mining activities and tramping through the woods and enjoying the rivers my entire life gives me a pretty good perspective.

The state of the economy both nationwide and in Montana should give everyone cause to think about what in the devil is happening to us as a country and, as important, why are things in such disarray. Montana has long been a proud producer of goods through use of its natural resources and in those good old days thousands of Montanans were employed earning wages that could support a family. These jobs were in mining, timber, oil and gas and all of the associated employment like trucking and services related to those natural resource occupations. And, of course, we had more family farms where folks lived and provided food to help feed the nation.

So, what happened on the journey from then to now to cause such an upheaval in the economy that puts one in seven Americans to live life in poverty? The simplistic answer, of course, is the recession with all the finger pointing that goes with it. The real answer is much more complicated and has been decades in the making as was pointed out at the recent Economic Summit held in Butte.

A couple of the speakers painted a quite rosy picture of our economy, saying there is a bright future and in no way is the country going to slip into a double-dip recession. While it might be easy for someone who is a billionaire to not be concerned about the immediate situation when 7.4 percent of Montanans are unemployed and nearly 10 percent of Americans are, it sure does not mean we will look back on these times as the good old days.

One speaker came right out and nailed the problem by saying since the 1970s the country’s economy has been driven by consumer credit and building a service-based economy and that was just wrong. Many manufacturing jobs have been replaced by those service-oriented jobs and most simply cannot and do not provide income sufficient to support a family. U.S. manufacturers saw an employment decline exceeding 15 percent last year. Thankfully, Montana did not drop that much and the manufacturing segment continues to provide more than 20 percent of Montana’s economic base, but it is hard to know how long those folks can hang on under current conditions.

A friend made a rhetorical comment the other day as to what would happen if the people in the United States now would try to build the interstate system, put in a hydro power dam, or build some new oil refineries as were built many years ago. We both laughed at the absurd notion that any of the infrastructure we all take for granted could be constructed under the existing laws, regulations, and litigation-happy population. Just ask a coal mining company how long it will take to permit a mine and remove the first shovel full of coal from the ground. Or, even the building of a wind farm with its associated transmission lines does not appeal to investors because of the uncertainty of completion of the project without years of appeals and stalling.

The area most familiar to me is the challenge of carrying out a timber sale on federal land when taking two or three years to write an environmental impact statement that then is appealed and probably litigated while the renewable resource of trees continues to deteriorate for lack of action. Usually when, or if, a project finally starts, many years have passed and it is a shadow of the amount needed to be accomplished on the ground.

Technology in all areas of natural resource development has changed dramatically since those good old days. Mining and its reclamation upon completion, timber harvesting techniques create park-like scenes, deer graze around oil wells, and more people than ever before are fed by our farmers. All of this is being done in spite of constant interference by the no action minority but it only makes one wonder how much more could be happening with our abundant natural resources and what an enormous boost the increase would be for our economy and our citizens.

We must work to stop the gridlock that has grown to plague development and proper use of our natural resources or years from now no one will point to this time in Montana history with a fondness for the good old days.

Ellen Simpson is executive vice president of the Montana Wood Products Association.