| The news:
A divided state Land Board today voted to lower the minimum bid for leasing 570 million tons of state-owned coal in southeastern Montana's Otter Creek Valley, dropping the upfront payment from 25 cents per ton to 15 cents a ton.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer, part of the board's 3-2 majority in favor of lowering the bid, told a packed hearing room at the Capitol that the 25-cent minimum set by the board in December was like the opening call at an auction, and that auctioneers usually lower the price when there is no takers....
State Auditor Monica Lindeen and Secretary of State Linda McCullough joined Schweitzer in supporting the new bid minimum.
Steve Bullock joined Denise Juneau in voting against the price cut.
George Ochenski saw a double standard in the governor's vote after the recent deal with British Columbia to halt resource extraction on the Canadian side of the Flathead Valley:
Travel now to southeast Montana, far from the rich and famous of the bustling Flathead Valley to the Tongue River Valley. While there's a distinct lack of real estate activity, new subdivisions and upscale McMansions, the area is home to the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and family ranches that span generations. This serene landscape of gently rolling hills stands in contrast to Glacier's rocky, snow-covered peaks and, unlike the Flathead's west slope, precipitation is sparse and welcome. As a result, both surface and groundwater are very precious commodities for agricultural and domestic use.
Why is water for Flathead Valley Montanans worth saving, but Tongue River Montanans get their scarce water sacrificed to coal mining? That's our dirty double standard. And why, after endlessly touting himself as "clean and green," would Schweitzer vote for mining coal that is likely going to Pacific Rim customers' dirty power plants?...
Honestly, I just don't understand why Schweitzer is so interested in developing Otter Creek coal. (McCullogh, on the other hand, always has been irrationally pro-resource-extraction, and Lindeen -- a team player - has Walt in her office.)
It can't be for political considerations: this is Schweitzer's last term. Unless he's eying a Senate seat - Baucus'? - his political future, if any, is on the federal level, in the Cabinet or as a presidential candidate. (Sure, Sec's of the Interior are usually pro-coal Westerners, but the Good Guv's already established himself on that front. Otter Creek won't help.) But...there's been absolutely no rumor of his running.
Does Schweitzer believe development of Otter Creek would be good for Montana? Possibly. It would bring money and jobs to the area - but resource extraction in no way is the best or even efficient means of bringing money into a community. Check out this Grist report on an MIT study on jobs. Investing in coal is one of the least efficient means of producing jobs. One of the best? Land restoration:
Conservation-investing in, for instance, the expansion of National Parks and other local, state, and federal recreation areas through, for instance, the Land and Water Conservation Fund-isn't too far behind. Some of the direct jobs in this sector include park rangers, park transportation workers, and other park personnel.
Relative to other spending options, investments in forests and parks tend to go towards wages rather than capital investments-providing the greatest benefit to communities, especially in economically difficult times (since Nature largely provides the materials that go into making a tree or a prairie grow for free, you don't need the same kind of capital as you do for, say, building a highway).
The actual jobs impact of forest investment is actually significantly greater than what's represented in the above table. A variety of other studies have analyzed job creation through conservation and found dramatic indirect effects. Expand a national park, national forest, river or local recreation area, and spending on and employment in outdoor recreation-everything from birdwatching and hiking to fishing and hunting - is dramatically increased.
Schweitzer's a smart guy. He knows this stuff. After all, Pat Williams has been talking about a "Restoration Economy" for some time.
There is a weird obsession in Montana with resource extraction, probably because it's so entwined with Montana's history and, consequently, its self-identity, where past is romanticized hopelessly beyond recognition. Just as a trust-fund hobby sheep farmer and real-estate developer wears cowboy boots to claim authenticity, so politcos adopt pro-coal positions to prove their connection to this unreal past.
Of course reality is different from it's romantic memory. After all, the biggest hero from the state's mining history is a man who was hung from a railroad trestle for demanding a living wage and safe working conditions for coal miners.