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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Race for Congress in Montana

Air Date: Week of

Environmental issues are in the forefront as Montana's two U.S. Representatives battle it out for a new single, state-wide seat. Both are long-time incumbents — one a moderate Democrat endorsed by the Sierra Club, the other a conservative Republican who calls environmentalists "Prairie Fairies."


CURWOOD: Because of redistricting, Montana's two seats in the US House are being collapsed into one huge, 600-mile-wide district. The race pits a moderate Democrat against a Republican with one of the lowest environmental ratings in Congress. As part of our series on the environment and this fall's elections, Mary Boyle has this report from Billings, Montana.

BOYLE: For the last decade and a half, the western, more urban half of Montana has been represented in Congress by Democrat Pat Williams, and the eastern, more rural half by Republican Ron Marlenee. These two Congressmen come from different parties and different backgrounds, and have vastly differing ideas about managing the state's resources and environment.

GRANSBERRY: Ron Marlenee is a man who believes Montana's natural resources should be exploited -- if there's timber to be cut, if there's minerals to be mined, if there's grass to be eaten by forage animals and that produces economic activity, let's do it.

BOYLE: Jim Gransberry is a political reporter with the Billings Gazette.

GRANSBERRY: Pat Williams would look at the environment as an equal rather than a subsidiary, if you will. The environment would get as much consideration as economic development or jobs.

BOYLE: Because of nationwide redistricting, these two Congressmen have been pitted against each other in a race for a single, statewide seat. It's a stark choice for Montanans, in a state that has traditionally relied on extractive natural resource jobs. Eight-term Republican Ron Marlenee decries Federal regulations that get in the way of natural resource use. The former farmer staunchly supports private property rights and opposed both the Federal Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. As for environmentalists, he calls them "prairie fairies."

His opponent, seven-term Democrat Pat Williams, says environmental regulations are not only helpful but at times necessary, especially in Montana.

WILLIAMS: Unless we put the environment first, we will in short order, perhaps in 25 years or less, end up with neither a natural resource economy or an environment. If we don't put the environment first, we will end up like our friends in Oregon and Washington, who, along with the Forest Service, practiced the folly of cutting 90 percent of the old-growth timber and are now left with the terrible option of either cutting the remaining 10 percent of the harvestable old-growth timber or facing the cul-de-sac of bankruptcy, unemployment and foreclosure.

BOYLE: But perhaps because of their newly-expanded constituencies in a state-wide race, the candidates have recently been sounding more similar than different on the environment. Again, Jim Gransberry.

GRANSBERRY: I think they're both trying to walk a narrow road, trying to claim the middle ground between the environment and development.

BOYLE: Republican Marlenee's strategy was unveiled early on, in a television ad he ran last spring.

TV ANNOUNCER: There are extremists who would like to lock up our state and throw away the key, and others who choose to ignore the hazards of uncontrolled growth. Fortunately, Congressman Ron Marlenee knows there's a better way that reasonable citizens working together can achieve a responsible balance between man and his environment . . . (fade down)

BOYLE: Congressman Marlenee says he ran his ad because his environmental record was being misrepresented by his opponents.

MARLENEE: Because I wanted to portray Ron Marlenee as I was, not as the Sierra Club, not as Earth First!, not as the League of Conservation Voters would portray to Montanans what I stood for. These groups are generally the activist groups that do not subscribe to balance and they're entering this race for political purposes to defeat me and elect Pat Williams.

BOYLE: The Marlenee ad prompted an immediate and forceful response from the Sierra Club, which hit the air waves with an anti-Marlenee ad of its own. They say his record on the environment is far from balanced. They call him one of Congress' "Dirty Dozen" -- among the Congressmen with the worst environmental voting records in the country. And although the Sierra Club has endorsed Pat Williams, it was with some hesitation. John Colburn chairs Montana's chapter of the Sierra Club.

COLBURN: He has made a number of votes we are not happy with, on the 1872 Mining Law, grazing law reform, ancient forest, among others. He has not voted the way we would like him to vote, so he isn't a solid Green vote for us.

BOYLE: So far, Marlenee and Williams seem to have split the Montana electorate right down the middle. A recent University of Montana survey found the two candidates in a statistical draw, with about fifteen percent undecided. And like the candidates, the electorate is split not just on the environment, but on a range of issues, including abortion, health care and the economy. The tight race seems to ensure that with the loss of one of their two seats in the House of Representatives, many Montanans will feel disenfranchised after the election. However, for the past fourteen years the votes of Ron Marlenee and Pat Williams have usually cancelled each other out. Now, for better or for worse, Montanans will speak on the environment and other issues with a single voice in the House of Representatives. For Living on Earth, I'm Mary Boyle in Billings, Montana.



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