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Much could be revealed in study of constitutionGuest column


Much could be revealed in study of constitution

Guest column

The University of Montana Law School's upcoming symposium on the 1972 Montana Constitution will no doubt trigger many reflections on the promises made in this truly remarkable document.

The school's celebration of the constitution's 30th anniversary, slated Sept. 12-14 in Missoula, is attracting legal scholars and luminaries from all over the country, including U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.

Speakers and panels plan to dissect the document and its many provisions to better understand how it serves Montanans.

Although they came from varying social and economic backgrounds, the 100 convention delegates who gathered in Helena three decades ago to rewrite our constitution shared one thing in common: They loved Montana and its diverse human and natural resources and vowed to protect both with a document that would withstand the test of time. For this we must be thankful.

From its stirring preamble describing the "quiet beauty" of our state to the twin goals of improving our quality of life while expanding the "equality of opportunity," the Montana Constitution is an extraordinary tribute to the foresight of its framers.

Widely known as one of the most progressive constitutions in the country, and perhaps in the world, our constitution succinctly spells out our responsibilities and rights, including the guarantee of a "clean and healthful environment" for every citizen. Another mandate is that "all lands disturbed by the taking of natural resources shall be reclaimed." Both of these promises are important to me as a small-business owner whose living depends on clean water.

Does Montana have a clean and healthful environment and full mine reclamation after 30 years of promises?

Far from it. But the turbulent era that spawned our new state constitution also prompted a series of laws designed to balance the interests of profit-hungry corporations with public health needs and the protection of our finite and fragile land, air and water. Among the important legal cornerstones enacted during the period were the Montana Environmental Policy Act, the Montana Facility Siting Act and, a bit later, the Strip and Underground Mine Reclamation Act.

Taking their cues from out-of-state corporations and their well-paid lobbyists, subsequent legislatures and governors have chipped away at our landmark resource-protection laws until in the case of the 2001 Legislature and Gov. Judy Martz's attacks on the environmental policy and facility siting acts only shells remain.

Meanwhile, state bureaucracies too often make a mockery of our remaining laws by failing to hold polluters responsible and refusing to enforce reclamation deadlines and standards. Ironically, this is done under the guise of creating jobs and "modernizing" protective rules that polluters and their apologists deem to be too restrictive. And despite what some politicians might think, Montanans don't want to get stuck paying to clean up messes like the W.R. Grace mine in Libby and the Zortman-Landusky gold mines in the Little Rocky Mountains.

Aside from these governmental transgressions, however, the will of our citizens to restore and protect our air, our water, our agricultural heritage, and our wildlife has clearly remained committed to conservation.

A telephone survey conducted earlier this year for the Montana Voters Conservation Education Fund and the League of Conservation Voters Education Fund explored the depth of that commitment. The survey of 600 likely Montana voters, selected at random, was completed by the Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin & Associates polling firm.

Not surprisingly, 80 percent of Montanans queried strongly agreed that enjoying outdoor activities such as hiking, camping, biking, fishing and skiing is an important Montana value. The results also show that 83 percent of Montanans still believe that the right to a clean and healthful environment is "extremely" or "very important" to them.

Furthermore, 66 percent of Montanans, without being prompted, identified wide-open spaces, natural surroundings and clean air as the best things about living in Montana. More than three-quarters (78 percent) of those questioned agreed that the state can have a clean environment and a strong economy at the same time, without sacrificing one for the other.

In addition, half of Montanans queried said they believe the state's environmental laws are either not strong enough or should be more strictly enforced, compared to one-fifth who said they believed environmental laws are too strict and need to be relaxed. Half of those queried also said that issues involving clean air, water and open spaces are "very important" when they're deciding how to vote. Clearly, who we elect to the Legislature and to the U.S. Congress matters.

Contrary to those who contend conservationists are out of touch, the survey shows unmistakably that Montanans still share common-sense values when it comes to the protection of our natural surroundings. The same values hold true for protecting the health of our families, as well as the well-being of our neighbors.

To me, that shows that the constitutional framers had it right 30 years ago when they put conservation and the protection of public health at the top of their concerns. There's no question that what they did then still makes sense today, and not just for us, but for each upcoming generation.

Richard Parks is owner of Parks' Fly Shop in Gardiner and serves as vice president of the Montana Conservation Voters Education Fund's board of directors.


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