Remember the big wildfires that burned over 180,000 acres south of Chinook in 1991?
I do. I was a sophomore in high school at the time and the fire raced along right across the road from my house. My great uncle died while trying to build a fire break to protect his farm.
Radio reports initially urged everyone who could possibly help to come and volunteer. Later reports said, “We need to kind of shut off the volunteer effort at this point in time because it cannot be coordinated. And if you do not know where you’re going, you may end up being in the way.” I remember thinking there needed to be some way to organize volunteers better during emergencies.
Last legislative session, another representative had introduced a bill to establish organized, volunteer groups like more than 20 other states already have, who can train in advance to be on hand in case of emergencies like that fire, or like the big flood of 1964 that killed 30 people and affected roughly 20 percent of the state. I thought that was a great idea and brought that bill back for consideration this session.
There is a national association for the states that already have these groups, the State Guard Association (visit www.sgaus.org to learn more). Most states call them state defense forces or state guards, but Montana statute already calls them home guards. House Bill 278 clarifies that the governor would have to establish rules for the home guard units and approve each group before they could form, and could eliminate them if necessary. Retired members of the National Guard and other military veterans have contacted me interested in offering their services to friends and neighbors during emergencies.
Unfortunately, this bill was mischaracterized and sensationalized by one young reporter as promoting “armed paramilitary militia” groups. The real heart of the Home Guard bill is not as scintillating as some of the media would have you believe.
In another recent, scintillating “news” story, HB 369, would allegedly “make Montana a poacher’s paradise” according to a recently graduated cub reporter working here at the Capitol. What he didn’t tell you in the article he wrote Sunday was that we tabled, meaning killed, the bill Friday, the day after we heard it. Why? The point was NOT to make poaching easier or our local game wardens’ job harder. The point was to remind the Fish, Wildlife and Parks as a department that they are not above the law, that they still answer to the people, and that if they continue to abuse their power, it can be severely limited or taken away.
Why did they need to get such a strong message? In the John Lewton case, an FWP agent went undercover to try to bust Mr. Lewton, a respected citizen and videographer who was wrongly accused of outfitting without a license. In the process, the FWP agent killed an irreplaceable trophy bighorn, over 204 points, Boone and Crockett.
Although the agent and another undercover agent were armed with rifles and Mr. Lewton was armed with a video camera, the agent claimed he did it because he feared for his life. Two juries found Mr. Lewton innocent of all charges, but then he was charged for filming on public land without a license. Meanwhile, the television show about FWP game wardens wasn’t bothering to get licenses for their filming on public lands.
An innocent man’s, Mr. Lewton’s, business and reputation have been ruined. In contrast, what consequence do you think that undercover FWP agent has paid?
I felt that FWP “got the message,” and I asked the committee to table HB 369 on Friday, but the “breaking news” story was written Sunday and apparently published Monday or Tuesday. The reporter never even bothered to talk to me.
Note to self: Never introduce a bill on a “slow news” week.
(Rep. Wendy Warburton, R-Havre, represents House District 34, parts of Blaine and Hill counties in the Montana House of Representatives. She can be reached at email@example.com.)