There was a time during the golden age of the conservation movement when being “anti-conservation” or “anti-environmentalist” was akin to speaking up for reinstatement of the Jim Crow laws. This conservation enlightenment reached levels of acceptance almost unimaginable today. An illustrative apex occurred in 1972, when 100 delegates from the largely rural and conservative state of Montana met to form a new constitution. Those delegates were from all walks of life. Many were ranchers and farmers. When the dust settled that year, a new Montana Constitution beamed and the state showed it off like a newborn son.
Perhaps the most heralded words in the Montana Constitution appeared in Article IX, Section 1, where the new document guaranteed citizens “a right to a clean and healthful environment.” In a state that holds both iconic wild lands and the worst scars of past environmental calamities, it looked as if a true “kumbaya” moment had just occurred. You could almost hear Joan Baez singing in the background. Great advancements were made in Montana, and nationally, in the years surrounding the new document. The Environmental Protection Agency came into being, the Clean Water Act was developed, and the Clean Air Act took hold. Wilderness Areas were established, Scenic Rivers were designated, and wildlife conservation came of age.
But like most détentes, the peace was short lived. Soon, the same forces that fought to exploit every last rock and tree in the West during the late 19th century began the slow and steady drumbeat to roll back all that had been gained. Eventually this manifested itself in the partisan nastiness of today’s politics. No more Joan Baez strumming her guitar. By the early 1990s, Joan was displaced by the hard driving screech of divisiveness and the lyrics began to sound like Axl Rose screaming, “Welcome to the Jungle.”
Today, there is no more polite conversation. “You are either with us or against us,” as former President George W. Bush famously stated. Those hard lines seem to have taken hold in all areas of our lives. Nowhere is this more evident than in discussions about conservation. Forces of greed wielding almost tectonic power have successfully pushed conservationists into a state of embarrassed panic.
But is all really lost? Maybe not! There are seeds of hope and some of them revolve around westerners. Many are conservative hunters and fishermen; the same groups who first took up the conservation mantle in Montana. Along with visionaries like John Muir, they prodded us into that first golden age culminating in the early ‘70s. Today if you watch more than a few minutes of right-wing cable, you may assume that conservation and environmentalism are right up there with Nazism. But according to recent polling, that’s not actually the case. While the conservation ethics of westerners may be buried under a steaming pile of partisan crap, all we need to do is scoop off the overburden and let those ethics grow.
Colorado College recently polled nearly 2,500 westerners on issues of politics and conservation. The screech of 24-hour cable TV would have you believe that everyone in the West would gladly give up their environmental protections in exchange for a penny or two, but the poll results tell another story. Seventy-two percent of respondents were concerned with loss of wildlife habitat. Seventy-eight percent were concerned about pollution of lakes and rivers. In an election season rife with talk of budget cuts, 77 percent were worried about cuts to parks and wildlife departments. Despite the drumbeat on oil and gas, 61 percent said they were concerned about the environmental impacts from petroleum extraction.
These poll results indicate that despite the cable news vitriol, our western conservation ethic is alive and well, and fit for polite conversation. No political party holds ownership rights on conservation, and those that state otherwise are full of ignorance.
Will Rogers lampooned his generation by saying: “All I know is what I read in the papers, and that’s an alibi for my ignorance.” The papers of Rogers’ generation have become cable TV channels. They are certainly prolific in their ability to produce of stinking piles of partisan ignorance but there are far sweeter aromas in the air. If we hope to remove the foul smells, we should not shrink from public reacting to the stench of ignorance and greed. More importantly we should take a deep breath and savor the rosy smell of conservation. It’s more common than we think!
Ryan Busse serves as board chair for Montana Conservation Voters. He lives in Kalispell.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.