Secrecy claim not true, but the bare-knuckled debate is just Montana's brand of politics

New West

by Pat Williams

The current public wrangling about Senator Jon Tester’s jobs and wilderness legislation heralds the many opinions about land use and protection policies. Perhaps somewhat disguised at the moment, but in a very real way, this heated debate represents a celebration of the passion we Montanans hold for the land and waters.

To us the landscape is not an abstraction, a Kodachrome; for millions of others the land exists only as images on a flickering screen or colors on a canvas. Out here the land is real. We work, play, and live on it. The land’s sustenance and provisions have created within us a visceral regard for place–this place.

It is understandable that virtually every proposal to alter land use has always been followed by vigorous discussion and more: tribal battles over hunting grounds, shoot ‘em ups over water diversions, lawyers tangling about boundary disputes, cattlemen and sheepherders at each other’s throats, some folks even disagreed with the designations of our glorious national parks and national monuments. It was wholly predictable that Senator Tester’s bill, which represents a unique combination of landscape restoration, timber harvest, and wilderness designation, would walk straight into the eye of this age-old storm. The struggle, I’m sure, is difficult for both Jon Tester and his staff, but it is simply the most recent demonstration that Montanans hold hard opinions about both the land and our place on it.

Since the passage of the original Wilderness Act in 1967, Montanans have expressed support and opposition, anger and adamance either for or against legislation to preserve portions of our most pristine lands. Montana’s politics have been bare-knuckled; our policies hard won and, as an old kid from the rough streets of Butte, I am lucky to have participated for 32 years in the rough and tumble that is the Montana Wilderness debate. Although the experiences have ranged from lukewarm to boiling over, I was often concerned that the victims of Montana’s brand of politics are too often both civility and fact, the essential footings of stable political process. I believe civility and fact are somewhat jeopardized by the current rash of debate about the Tester legislation. One has only to read the comments on this NewWest.Net or any others including the letters-to-the-editor of our newspapers to understand that, for some, anger has replaced civility, neighborliness and mutual respect and accusation is replacing fact. Consider the most recent charges about “secrecy” in the preparation of the legislation. Jon Tester, his staff, and reliable Montana proponents from both the environmental and logging communities are accused of developing their proposals in the dark, in secret, outside of the public’s view. That charge is simply a violation of fact.

As Montana’s Congressman, I introduced nineteen Montana wilderness bills. Although I was not engaged in the writing of the Tester legislation (and so what?), I know that the final product has been and, I’m betting, will continue to be the most public and locally oriented legislation of its type ever presented by any Montana Senator or Congressman…and that includes me.

Pat Williams served nine terms as a U.S. Representative from Montana. After his retirement, he returned to Montana and is teaching at The University of Montana.