There are many things that are special about Montana, but my favorite, the thing that makes me most pleased with my new state, is one that few people know about. It’s not visible to the naked eye like the mountains and the rivers and the fabled Big Sky; it’s not easy to find with a little ferreting, like the incredible microbrews and the surprisingly credible pizza.
The best special thing about Montana is this: Article II of the state constitution has, since 1972, given every citizen of the state a right to a clean and healthful environment. Article IX backs this up with a requirement that landscapes damaged by resource extraction must be reclaimed. Only three other states in the U.S. address environmental health in their constitutions at all.
In 1972, the state was (for that matter, still is) recovering from ongoing plutocratic rule. In particular, the captains of the mining industry had run rampant, poisoning entire communities, using extra-legal violence to break unions, and leaving little wealth behind but what they put in the pockets of their bought-and-paid-for officials. The clean and healthful environment provision was one of those put into the constitution to prevent this from ever happening again.
Like our nation as a whole, Montana hasn’t always lived up to the best ideals of its constitution, but environmental groups have actively used Articles II and IX to maintain the states’ ecosystems in the face of short-sighted opportunists. This, naturally, has annoyed said short-sighted opportunists — and their allies, people like Montana’s current governor Brian Schweitzer, who embrace the conventional non-wisdom that being business-friendly means being hostile to the best interests of those of us who are not businesses.
The Montana constitution also mandates that every 20 years the voters may decide whether or not to call a new convention and rewrite the document. 2010 marked the second time that the people of Montana were called on to decide this issue, and you will not be surprised to learn that there were those who hoped to take the opportunity to gut Articles II and IX in the name of temporary economic growth. What you may be surprised to learn, given the general gloom many environmentalists felt over the outcome of the mid-term elections, is that the voters rejected the siren call of money and chose to leave the constitution in place.
So as we enter 2011, despite the many problems facing the state and the planet as a whole, there’s a little glimmer of hope in Montana. Here, in my new home in this new year, the people still affirm that ““All persons are born free and have certain inalienable rights. They include the right to a clean and healthful environment…”