In Fire and Brimstone: The North Butte Mining Disaster of 1917, author Michael Punke describes a time in Montana when the “Copper Kings,” William Clark and Marcus Daly, reigned supreme through graft, corruption, bribery, and greed. Even Mark Twain who knew William Clark personally commented about Clark, “by his example he has so excused and so sweetened corruption that in Montana it no longer has an offensive smell.” As the sordid story of Clark’s purchase of a Senate seat unfolded, however, a group of people did find the smell of his dealings offensive, and they set out to make sure that Clark didn’t get to take that Senate seat. After many legal and senatorial wranglings, Clark was forced to resign, and Montana did without a second senator for that entire term.
Thanks to those fearless few who identified corruption when they saw it and sought to expunge it, Montana escaped what could have been an ever-widening circle of greed brought to a national level. Not to say that either “Copper King” was brought to his knees as Clark bought his way into the seat once again; and certainly copper continued to rule supreme in influence and power through to the 1960s when the Anaconda Company began to crumble. It is, with no doubt, a sorry chapter in our state’s history.
Not to be an alarmist, but I think the ghosts of that sordid era are rearing their ugly heads once again — in politics as well as in the whole scale destruction of our beloved state. In a recent post on the Montana Cowgirl’s blog site, about which the Washington Post says: (the Cowgirl Blog) is “among the best state-based political blogs in the nation,” guest poster Mary Ann Dunwell contends that “TEA Party congressional candidate Matt Rosendale and a militia-affiliated TEA Party leader, (Jennifer Fiedler) have glommed onto a likely unconstitutional land grab idea pushed by out-of-staters that is a financial black hole for Montanans and a nightmare for Montana’s economy and environment.” Among their dastardly plans is the take-over of public lands such as the Rocky Mountain Front, the Bob Marshall Wilderness area, the Beartooths, the Bitteroot-Selway, the national forests and other scenic areas surrounding our national parks through actions taken in the legislature . Once those sites are annexed, the plan would be to sell them to the highest bidder. This nasty piece of self-serving aggrandizement could spawn many results, such as limiting the public’s access to these properties, to say nothing of the plan to sell the properties to owners who would log, strip-mine, cut off mountain tops, frack, and generally rape this beautiful state of ours. Of course, there will be good people who will come to the fore to fight such a take-over, but that litigation is apt to cost the citizens of Montana huge amounts in tax dollars. Couple those costs with the fact that if the state legislature were to take over these lands, the cost to tax payers for the upkeep and management of these federal lands would rise from what we pay now: about $600,000.00 per year for state lands to the two or three hundred millions that the federal government pays in Utah and Idaho to manage their similarly-sized federal lands. We can barely pay to manage our own state parks thanks to the legislature’s reluctance to allocate funds to them. How would we ever think to assume the hundreds of millions now paid by the federal government? These land-grabbers would say we’ll just clear-cut the federal lands, sell off the mining interests, allow drilling in our most hallowed and sacred places, bring in the companies whose main job is to frack and cut off the mountain tops. Of course, LORAX-like, once we do that, we lose the 3.7 billion dollar industry of tourism that we’ve worked so hard to build, and there’s no going back after such a decision. Who wants to come to a barren, tree-less, fracked, and poisoned state for leisure and sport? If you’re not understanding the full extent to which a corporation will go, just take a drive over to Butte and view the vast open pit mine, containing a lake of toxic brew, that threatens to poison that fine city’s ground water. Or contemplate this: down Texas way, Governor Perry has sold an extensive piece of Texas to a toxic waste company which plans to bury canisters of said waste in an area that sits precisely over a large aquifer, the water supply to six surrounding states. What some people will do for a buck or a million defies morality, conscience, and patriotism.
So, fellow citizens, when you go to the polls, will you be in the same league as the former buffalo hunter, turned legislator Fred Whiteside, who, in 1913, finally could take the graft and corruption no longer and testified before the legislature that he had been offered a bribe of $30,000.00 to vote for Clark in the election process for senator? Whiteside produced the money in front of the legislature and gave damning testimony against Clark. Though Clark successfully waged a “vicious counterassault” against Whiteside and challenged Whiteside’s recent election, Whiteside remained true to his testimony and stated on his way out: “Let us clink our glasses and drink to crime…The Senate election “has reminded me of a horde of hungry, skinny, long-tailed rats around a big cheese.” Money had won for a time, but thanks to the efforts of Whiteside and others who found the whole morass horrifying and shameful, Clark was divested of his senatorial grab. Let’s hope that the spirit of those fighters against graft, greed, and corruption have come down through the generations and guide our hands as we vote to stand once again against the latest “rise of the Copper Kings,” whose only love of this state stems from what can be pillaged and robbed from it.
This is Pat Rosenleaf, and I stand with Fred Whiteside and any one else who’ll fight to keep our state “the last best place.”