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Williams takes on industries hired guns


"I never said I never said it. I said that I never said that I didn't say that I said it." With those convoluted words of denial, the former Governor of Michigan, George Romney, only worsened the confusion.

To avoid "Romney speak," I'll be concise. Earlier this month I made a public speech about Montana's economy and how we might improve it through better governance of our public lands. The press accurately reported my remarks. However, in response to those news stories, columns and letters to the editor have accused me of having said that timber, mining and agriculture have ended in Montana. So, let me be clear: I never said that period!

Several of those columns which criticized me were signed by the heads of a few associations representing mining, cattle and timber companies. They claim that I believe that their economic future is no more. These critics need to go back and reread those news articles and they will find that no where in them am I quoted as having said those things.

To be clear, however, let me set out what I actually do believe about the economy in Montana. First, I understand that agriculture, including cattle, is very important and represents a large revenue source for Montana. This state's future rests, in large measure, upon a vital, sustainable agricultural economy. I also believe this about today's ag economy: with the exception of the Montana Farmers Union, most other agriculture associations, including those wrongfully attacking me, have wrongfully hurt Montana's small farmers and cattle operators by supporting federal farm and trade legislation during the 1980s and '90s which, although very profitable for the huge international agri-business corporations, has been devastating for our state's small farm and cattle people. Yes, direct federal farm payments have lined the pockets of a handful of our biggest landowners, but our small producers have or are going broke.

Concerning mining and timber in Montana: those industries are still a good part of Montana's economy, particularly for a few communities. However, copper, gold and timber are simply no longer king. We all know that those old days are gone or at least we should know it.

Personally, I am in favor of continued and sustainable logging and mining in Montana. I support jobs on the land. Growing up in Butte and working for the Anaconda Company, I remember the days of our city's 5,000 workers, the best paying industrial jobs in the world; not, by the way, because of the generosity of the Anaconda Company, but rather due to the determination and solidarity of Montana's organized labor.

I also remember 1980 when Anaconda/ARCO suddenly and ruthlessly announced the end of its Montana mining, smelting, and refining operations in Great Falls, Anaconda and Butte. Neither the workers nor our communities heard talk about the importance of "jobs" back then. Not one, count 'em, not one of the groups, now so quick to lecture us about jobs, moved to help. Not one of them talked about the importance of saving those lost jobs rather, they instructed us about the necessity of eliminating the jobs to assure corporate profit. These people sing alluringly about "jobs" only when the word is useful to their bottom line. Those of us with long memories frankly don't need lectures about the importance of jobs from these people or their companies. Nor do I need to be reminded that those who are criticizing me represent the same companies which for a decade and a half have elected their favorite politicians to our highest state office and imposed their own brand of trickle down economics on this state. The result of that folly has taken Montana down the economic drain.

We Montanans understand that our state has changed dramatically and we must hope that industries' hired guns understand it as well. The old days of boom and bust in timber, copper and gold are gone. Improved productivity, limited natural resources, international competition, world prices, and, yes, the public's environmental ethics (in that order), have forever changed Montana's economy. We can cheer or we can weep, but the old days are gone and what we need now is bold, wise, innovative leadership.

Our state has undeniably moved from an extractive economy to one of conservation and restoration. Are there going to be jobs on the land in mining and timber? There can be and there ought to be. There can and hopefully will be many sustainable jobs, employing improved methods, and here's hoping that this time around the dollars will stay here in Montana in the pockets of our small businesses and hard-working people.


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