Political Hay

The Last Best Drop…

We should have such problems as those faced in Eastern Montana.

By 3.6.06

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The personable Montana Governor, Brian Schweitzer, made a big hit recently with a lengthy appearance on CBS's 60 Minutes, telling Lesley Stahl that Montana has a solution to the nation's energy problems -- coal. Eastern Montana swims on a bed of coal, he explained, there for the digging. Some, in fact, is being strip-dug presently, at a series of "coal strips," designed at first to add to the state and region's electrical capacity. The prospect of laying waste the eastern half of the state is not new. There was once a plan to dig pipelines and have the coal in slurry form sent to other portions of the nation in need, a plan that apparently has disappeared much like the landscape it would have replaced.

A conservative Democrat (oxymoron?), Governor Schweitzer makes a cheerfully compelling case except to those who live in the region and would have to gaze on the remnants of the salvation long after the fact. His state also is in the throes of building some mighty wind farms which will add to the electrical supply but again at a cost. Hulking masts bearing gigantic fan blades scar some portions of countryside once noted for a Lewis and Clark pristine beauty. In a state that proudly declares itself "The Last Best Place..."

A water war is breaking out with regions downstream on the Missouri River. Years of sparse rain and snow fall threaten to shallow the mighty stream in its state of origin, while downstream interests say "it ain't your water; keep it coming." And speaking of water, the state's Department of Natural Resources and Conservation is now embarked on a massive campaign to discover the state's tens of thousands of water wells. The State Legislature recently passed a bill (HB22) authorizing a $20 biennial fee for each well dug in the last 35 or so years. A mapping of the state's water rights is underway and the fee is designed to raise the estimated $31 million it's going to cost to figure out who owns the "water rights" to what properties in one of the largest of states. Ask the average Montanan if he knew he had to register his well with the state and pay a $50 fee when he dug it and he'll look at you as if you'd invited him to see Brokeback Mountain.

Montana is noted of course for its flowing water and populations of trout. Too well noted, it seems.

The Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks has just announced the receipt of 4,478 applications from folks who want to float the Smith River this summer. That stream flows from the Little Belt Mountains some 60 miles into the Missouri River. The four and a half thousand applications are up some 600 from 2005. Some 740 permits are granted, winners to be notified this month. The Smith, it should be noted, is no better fishing than a similar stream in the same vicinity named "Hound Creek." For decades, "Hound" was supreme, because the country through which it ran was inhabited by the biggest, most persistent collection of rattlesnakes east of Los Angeles. But we digress.

Whatever fate awaits Eastern Montanans on their bed of coal, or the lucky recipient of permission to float a trout stream, or the hapless owner of a well for whom ignorance of the law is no excuse, there is a certain solace in the descriptive "Last Best Place."

But a measure of unease in that word last.

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About the Author

Reid Collins is a former CBS and CNN news correspondent.