Montana Viewpoint: If only the nation could follow Montana’s model of civil discourse

Jim Elliott

I was thinking this morning of the shrill sounds, threats and recriminations coming out of our nation’s capital.

For some reason, perhaps because of the contrast, it reminded me of a meeting that occurred outside of Dillon in 2007. It was the first meeting of the newly formed Interim Water Policy Committee of the Montana Legislature. [An interim committee meets between the sessions of the Legislature and is made up of equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats from both the Senate and the House.]

Interim committees hold hearings and make decisions on how to handle issues that are of importance to the state. Our charge was to study the use of water in Montana — water rights, water usage such as drinking water and septic disposal, irrigation, and water use in real estate development. If it had water in it, we studied it.

The hearing I had in mind was held at the Clark Canyon Reservoir south of Dillon. There was a representative of a ranchers’ association and he was talking about how they were addressing irrigation and fishing issues in the Big Hole, two potentially competing uses of water. As he talked, he mentioned that they had developed a policy of streamside setbacks in the Big Hole, and I listened rather incredulously as he spoke.

A streamside setback in general prohibits building within a certain distance of a stream. Reasons include septic pollutions, lawn fertilizer runoff that encourages algae growth, and, for good measure, preventing flooded residences. It had been briefly a hot topic in the most recent legislature and legislation to establish statewide standards for setbacks had gone down to a fast and complete defeat.

After his presentation, I approached him and asked how come they were not only interested, but successful in setting standards in the Big Hole. He said, simply, that Big Hole natives saw the way change was coming with vacation homes and out-of-staters picking up riverside property and felt that they should do something to protect their way of life, so they took on the project and sold it to their neighbors and there you had it.

The Big Hole Valley is home to large ranches, hard winters, and good people. The Big Hole River is one of the prime fishing rivers in Montana, which has encouraged an important industry of fishing outfitters. Maintaining an equilibrium between irrigation and keeping enough water in the river for fish and fishermen is an important issue, and one that can be pretty contentious.

But apparently not in the Big Hole, where the ranchers and outfitters seemed to have forged a culture of cooperation. There was even an agreement, he told me, that on one day every weekend the outfitters would limit use of the river so that people from nearby Butte could fish unmolested.

We rode together on the bus between presentations and at one point I asked him how many cuttings of hay they put up. “Just one,” he said. “If we threw the water at it in late summer, we could get two, but that wouldn’t be fair to the recreationists and fishermen because it would dewater the stream.”

I came away very impressed and came to be of the belief that if we were going to settle our water issues it was better to do it locally, watershed by watershed, rather than to have a statewide imposition of standards. The Big Hole, it must be pointed out, is not a hotbed of environmentalists or liberals, just people with good common sense and a willingness to work together.

Thinking back to the political shrieking and name calling, I reckoned that if we were ever going to be shut of that noise we would have to start on a local level if we wanted to reclaim what could pass for civil discourse by our national politicians and “opinion” makers.

In Montana we are, if not wise, then lucky that we pretty much have that in place. I don’t read much about shouting contests at county commission meetings or school boards or city council meetings. Political campaigns can be problematic at times, but in general we are a pretty civil people who want to be able to look our neighbors in the eye the next day. I have no clue as to how to parlay this behavior into a nationwide movement for civility, but it’s something worth thinking about.

As a friend of mine used to say, “Manners make things easier for everybody.”

Jim Elliott served 16 years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek. Montana Viewpoint appears in weekly papers across Montana and online at missoulacurrent.com.