It’s late August in Montana and the North Fork of the Flathead River is running low and slow, snaking through a chalky corridor of wildfire smoke, its steep banks inscribed with the tracks of deer and grizzly bears, wallpapered with a mix of blackened snags and young lodgepole pine, and scored with clusters of radiant fireweed.
The smoke blotting the sky overhead hangs in contrast against the transparency of the water below, magnifying the burnished bottom-stones and the shimmering flashes of bull trout, rainbows and cutties.
Somewhere downstream from the Glacier Rim river access, about 10 miles north of Columbia Falls, a ClackaCraft drift boat cuts through the glassy surface, which longtime fly-fishing guide and oarsman Irv Heitz navigates from his perch in the middle of the boat, rowing and setting his clients up on fish. At the bow, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, dressed in zip-off Columbia cargo pants and a T-shirt, leans against the boat’s leg bracket, casting a dry fly at the tail of a riffle that’s usually filthy with trout.
But the river is low and tepid at the end of a dry, hot, smoky summer, and the fishing has been slow all day.
Then the Republican senator slings another cast past some downed limbs near a deep pool’s tailout and a rainbow trout explodes on his mayfly pattern. Moments later he holds the gleaming, rose-hued trout in his hands and releases it back into the crystalline waters of the North Fork.
Heitz calls it a 20-incher, employing the liberal measurement standards of a seasoned guide, but he’s not far off. There’s no arguing with the reality that the fish, if a little on the skinny side, is a gorgeous specimen, and no debating that Daines is handily out-fishing the reporter seated on a swivel chair at the boat’s stern.
“That’s the biggest fish I’ve seen on this stretch this summer,” Heitz says, exchanging a high-five with Daines. “And as a guide, I’m sort of the keeper of the river.”
Gorgeous as the fish may be, it’s the river and its keepers that Daines is here to celebrate today, and the congratulatory high-five is as much a solemnization of the permanent environmental protections he helped furnish on the North Fork as it is a gushy salute to the tight lines and hungry trout.
A conservative Republican, Daines’ support of the North Fork Watershed Protection Act, which banned new energy development on 430,000 acres of wild and scenic river corridor, bucks a trend of partisan politicking that has eroded a deep tradition of conservation in the GOP, which has a distinguished history of stewardship going back to the founding of the Republican Party.
Abraham Lincoln, the nation’s first Republican president, signed legislation in 1864 to protect California’s Yosemite Valley, laying the groundwork for what would become Yosemite National Park. Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican hailed as the patron saint of conservation, later created scores of national parks, game preserves, national forests, national monuments, bird sanctuaries, and reclamation projects during his tenure from 1901 to 1909.
Dwight D. Eisenhower established the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Richard Nixon signed many of the most significant pieces of environmental legislation to date, establishing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Council on Environmental Quality.
And under Ronald Reagan, whose administration was generally skeptical of environmental rules, the United States pushed forth the Montreal Protocol, which required the phasing out of chemicals that deplete the ozone layer.
But that legacy has been undermined by gamed-out partisan politics, according to Rob Sisson, president of the group ConservAmerica, and the default Republican response has been to balk at anything that smacks of environmental legislation, dismissing the measures as job-killing federal overreach and the provenance of Democrats and liberals.
For the past 20 years, ConservAmerica, previously Republicans for Environmental Protection, has worked to raise the profile of conservation in the conservative party, and while the efforts have often been plodding, Sisson says he’s seeing progress, finding purchase even in the halls of a divided Congress.
“I think the ideal of conservation and environmental protection has always been alive and well among the rank-and-file Republicans across the country, the kind of voters you find in Anytown, Montana. But nationally we have had this echo chamber of cable TV and talk radio now for close to 30 years, altering the political stratosphere,” Sisson said. “Lately I see the worm turning with respect to Republicans and conservatives and their public positions on a variety of environmental protection measures.”
That’s not to say the paradigm shift has come easily, or that the North Fork bill transcended the trenches of partisan politics.
Earlier in the day, Daines and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, his Democratic counterpart and a frequent rival on a gamut of issues, stood side-by-side on the banks of the North Fork and addressed a coalition of unlikely bedfellows with mixed interests, the river serving as a common unifier. Some of the stakeholders in attendance had worked on the North Fork measure for decades, reaching out from all corners of the enviro-political arena, and fighting tooth and nail to craft a bill that Montana’s full delegation could get behind.
Daines was an early champion of the North Fork Watershed Protection Act, announcing his support for it just months into his first term as Montana’s lone U.S. House representative, and surprising some political observers by introducing his own version of the bill in the House while Tester and former U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, the bill’s earliest architect, hammered away in the Senate.
It represented the first time in recent memory a public lands bill had garnered the support of Montana’s entire congressional delegation.
The bill finally emerged late last year as a rider to the National Defense Authorization Act, a piece of must-pass legislation that included a package of 70 national public land bills, the largest collection since the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009.
In addition to the North Fork bill, the package included the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, which adds 67,000 acres to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, designates 208,000 acres nearby as a conservation management area, and releases 14,000 acres of wilderness study areas for a new assessment of the potential for oil and gas extraction. It also allows the reassessment of 15,000 additional acres of wilderness study areas for potential energy development, a big bone of contention in reaching the partisan compromise.
But the same folks who applauded Daines for his support on the North Fork bill are critical of his stances on other measures, including a forest reform bill they say would strip away bedrock environmental protections from the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.
Over in the House, U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, a first-term Republican congressman from Whitefish – who nabbed Daines’ seat when the latter was elected to the U.S. Senate – and a self-described “Teddy Roosevelt Republican,” is a co-sponsor of the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015, which a coalition of Montana sportsmen, timber leaders, outfitters, business owners, and conservationists say is out of sync with the brand of collaboration-driven forest management solution that best suits Montana’s interests.
The bill, which Daines supports, puts timber harvests above all else, critics say, and opens the door for unsuitable forest management while limiting public involvement. It would also require those litigating forest projects or policy to post a bond and categorically exclude projects that have collaborative support with the goal of increasing the size of projects.
At the same time, Zinke recently cast a lone-wolf vote to reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) in the House Natural Resources Committee, breaking from the pack as the only Republican to vote in favor of extending funding of the half-century old conservation bill. Daines also supports LWCF, so much so that he recently rallied a group of Republican senators to testify on the Senate floor in favor of reauthorization.
Tester, meanwhile, has been an ardent supporter of not just reauthorizing LWCF, but appropriating it in full, and all three members of the delegation decried the extreme partisan politics that ultimately forced its expiration at the end of last month, for the first time in the LWCF’s history.
For many Montanans, the mounting examples of a unified delegation are encouraging.
In a purple state like Montana, however, it’s a fine line. And while both Republican lawmakers recognize that the state’s streak of independence runs deep, and that issues align most voters more than party politics, some observers say they should be bolder on conservation and environmental protection measures in the Treasure State, especially on issues that are politically risky.
As a political and ecological analog, University of Montana political science professor Rob Saldin points to Idaho’s slate of conservative lawmakers, including U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo and U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, who serve the most reliably Republican state in the country while managing to usher major wilderness bills through Congress. Not only have they thrown their support behind those measures, they’ve marched at the vanguard – like the Crapo-led effort to designate more than 500,000 acres of Idaho’s Owyhee Canyonlands as wilderness, and Simpson’s Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act, which created three new wilderness areas totaling more than 300,000 acres.
Compared to Daines and Zinke, Saldin said the Idaho contingent sets the bar higher, using the model of collaboration to appeal to diverse interests, while also taking big political risks.
“It’s not clear to me that Zinke and Daines should be getting a lot of accolades for their work on the environment,” Saldin said. “When you look at how the Republicans next door in Idaho have stuck their necks out to pass wilderness bills, which is the gold standard, the Montana Republicans’ support for the lowest of the low hanging fruit like the North Fork and LWCF is nowhere near as ambitious, countercultural and risky for a Republican as what the Idaho delegation has done.”
Others recognize that Daines and Zinke are still relatively new to their positions in Washington, D.C., where the political current is as tumultuous as ever, and that an unrivaled level of government dysfunction is eclipsing the interests of rural states like Montana. So, if through the lens of Washington politics it appears that Daines and Zinke are carefully selecting issues to champion and feeling others out, it’s probably because they are, and it’s not unique on the landscape of relative political newcomers.
“Montana is a little bit John Denver and a little bit Merle Haggard. As a politician, you need to strike just the right melody,” Daines said. “I think we’re uniquely poised, though, and I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished so far, on the North Fork and elsewhere.”
Zinke’s critics include former supporters, who say he was more moderate as a state lawmaker, and that the cutthroat nature of Washington politics has politicized his stances on a range of issues.
Sisson, of ConservAmerica, sees it differently, and said he’s encouraged by the arrival of lawmakers like Zinke in D.C., even if it takes them time to find an even flow that reaches their constituents back home.
“Electorally there are a lot of Republicans who run on certain platforms because that is how you win the primary and go on to the general election. They’re trying to thread the needle, and to win you have to be good on conservation issues. But then they get to D.C. and all of a sudden the focus shifts to re-election,” said Sisson, who recently bought property in Montana and met with Zinke at a Republican function in Michigan.
Sisson said he’ll keep close tabs on Zinke, and that, looking forward, it’s better for the conservation movement to support the freshman congressman on his strengths than to attack him for his missteps.
“I think it is far better to have a Ryan Zinke in Congress knocking heads in his caucus on something like LWCF than to try and take a guy like him out,” Sisson said. “The League of Conservation Voters targets him because he doesn’t check off 100 percent of the boxes on their questionnaire, but one party can’t accomplish all the policies we need. It has to be bipartisan. So to have some Republicans in the caucus who are working behind the scenes and who are sharing data, I think that is better for the overall good than trying to take someone like that out.”
Sisson spends a lot of time helping Republican lawmakers understand how supporting conservation and environmental protections can be politically expedient, a task that can often be something of a lonely road. But he’s found measures of success in crafting the environmental argument as pro-business – national parks and public lands draw scores of out-of-state visitors – and even pro-life – look at the number of babies born with neurological defects due to toxic mercury exposure.
“It’s amazing how many Republicans in Congress say, ‘we are not going to designate one more acre of wilderness,’ and then you sit down and explain to them that this is sponsored by bipartisan groups of hunters and anglers and business leaders, and they’re like, ‘really?’” Sisson said. “Having conversations like that helps, especially if it’s coming from a right-of-center environmental group.”
Zinke, who owns a Toyota Prius, has adopted the increasingly mainstream argument that open spaces and protected land is good for the economy, which is well-documented and an easy sell for pro-business Republicans.
He’s gone as far as to say that “Montana is not for sale,” and this summer broke with a majority of Republicans to vote for an amendment prohibiting a large-scale transfer of federal public lands, which for a time was the issue-du-jour for far-right Republicans, but which Sisson says has passed out of vogue and now calls “political suicide.”
Zinke also is a proponent for “responsible” extraction of natural resources, which he says has been discouraged by environmental litigation, and his version of timber reform includes scaling back environmental measures that groups suing frequently rely upon.
“We live in Montana for a reason, because we enjoy clean water, clean air and the outdoors. But it has to be about multiple use and not single use,” Zinke said. “I think we have lost our way in a lot of ways. We can mine and drill and still be responsible stewards of the land we cherish. Coal, oil and natural gas are going to be part of our energy picture for a long time and there is no doubt when it comes to energy that Montana has an important role to play.”
Conservation advocates in Montana say they’d like to see more of the collaboration-driven efforts that propelled the North Fork and Rocky Mountain Front measures through Congress, and less of the “top-down” approaches that don’t recognize Montana’s diverse interests, like Zinke’s Resilient Federal Forests Act.
They’d also like to see them avoid the political morass that bogged down the efforts for so many years.
“If Teddy (Roosevelt) were alive today, I think he’d applaud the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act and the North Fork Watershed Protection Act as examples of meaningful conservation. He would also say that these bills took way too long to pass and that our next conservation achievements need to come more quickly,” Brian Sybert, executive director of the Montana Wilderness Association, said. “There is certainly no shortage of great proposals in the backlog.”
Still, others in the conservation world view Montana’s delegation differently, and while a unified frustration over the political gridlock that often derails environmental legislation echoes Sybert’s, they note that all three members of Montana’s congressional delegation recognize the intrinsic value of public lands.
Ben Long, a longtime conservationist and writer in Kalispell who’s been carefully tracking conservation issues in the region for more than 20 years, said it’s refreshing to see Daines and Zinke willing to explore issues that aren’t necessarily associated with the party’s current mainstream priorities or values. The “bottom line,” Long said, “is that clean air, clean water, good habitat, places to hunt, fish and camp are die-hard Montana values that transcend party politics.”
“But when that gets into the Washington, D.C., hyper-partisan atmosphere, that fact is a casualty of political war,” he added. “I think past controversies such as the wolf wars and timber wars clouded up the waters, but things have really started to clear lately. I give Daines and Zinke a lot of credit for being reasonable voices as a radical few congressmen try to gut the Land and Water Conservation Fund. So the partisan divide can be bridged, but it can also be blown up when partisans light off a bunch of dynamite under it.”
Bob Brown, a former secretary of state and longtime Republican legislator from Whitefish, who arguably demonstrated the tenets of a “Theodore Roosevelt Republican” more earnestly than anyone, said his work on collaboration-driven land management solutions in Montana is proof it can work.
“Out of all these Theodore Roosevelt wanna-bes, I’m the real one,” he said.
As a state senator, Brown spawned a piece of state legislation called “long-arm jurisdiction,” which says that if a foreign company pollutes Montana, the state can reach through the labyrinth of parent companies, corporate connections and subsidiaries to go after any U.S. holdings and hold those interests accountable.
Brown considers himself a pretty good judge of character, and he’s had occasion to spend time with Daines on the North Fork, casting his signature Royal Wulff at the same riffles and engaging in lightning rounds of conversation about both fishing and politics.
That experience, he said, fostered a swelling confidence in Daines’ leadership, his personal values and his willingness to go out on a limb for Montana’s best interests.
“I think that Daines’ heart is in the right place, that he is a sincere acolyte of nature and of Montana values, and a true son of Montana,” Brown said. “We just need to give him time.”
The distinction between Steve Daines the Montanan and Steve Daines the senator, if there is one, isn’t clear from the back of a fishing boat, and while his voting record will continue to serve as the best form of checks and balances against his political rhetoric, today on the North Fork it’s the fishing that’s most revealing.
His laser-focus on the task at hand – fly fishing – is testimony to his enchantment with the outdoors, and his eagerness to chatter about family backpacking trips in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, about which his knowledge is vast, is evidence of his understanding of and appreciation for the intrinsic value of wild, untrammeled places.
Even his concern for a rainbow trout that he plucks from the North Fork in the afternoon heat trumps his desire for a photo-op, and he chastises the reporter for scribbling in a soggy notebook instead of casting at an undercut bank holding fish.
“Let’s get him back in the water, cool him off,” he tells Heitz after admiring the catch. “That’s a nice looking fish.”
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