By Anne Hedges & Derf Johnson
Some people only need one name, like Prince or Madonna. MEIC had Jensen.
What can you say about a man who took the reins of an organization on the brink of financial collapse and, together with dynamic duo George Ochenski and Adam McLane, brought it back from the ashes? Jim Jensen spent the better part of his career dedicated to making the Montana Environmental Information Center a force to be reckoned with. His tenacious, unflinching, and uncompromising spirit over the course of 35 years was instrumental in protecting what’s best about Montana. MEIC is honored to give Jensen our highest award, “The Conservationist of the Year Award,” at our 50th Anniversary celebration on September 16, 2023.
Throughout his career, Jensen has been a fierce adversary and developed at MEIC a culture of obstinance to those that would profit by destroying what makes Montana special. However, he is equally kind-hearted to those who worked with him. Jensen turned his experience as a state legislator into a foundation to make MEIC the strongest environmental lobbying team in the state. For those who wanted to profit off of destroying Montana’s landscapes, waters, climate and overall environment (or were mealy-mouthed about their commitment to future generations), he has little patience.
Over the course of 35 years, Jensen was key in securing innumerable wins for Montana’s environment, including dogged work to hold Montana’s government accountable to our Constitutional right to know.
Of particular note is the success of Initiative 137 in 1998, which banned new cyanide heap-leach mines in Montana — a citizen’s initiative that has prevented untold amounts of mining pollution during the last quarter-century and stopped a proposed mine at the headwaters of the Blackfoot River. The idea came to him in the shower one morning and he was off and running. Fortunately, he had a great staff to help him execute his scheme.
In an interview with Montana Free Press, Jensen noted MEIC vs DEQ as one of MEIC’s distinguished achievements. This 1999 Montana Supreme Court decision declared that the right to “a clean and healthful environment,” enshrined in the revamped state Constitution of 1972, was a fundamental right and was “anticipatory and preventative.”
Roger Sullivan, a Kalispell attorney and member of the MEIC board, told Montana Free Press upon Jensen’s 2020 retirement, “I believe that that constitutional right would still ring hollow [without the 1999 case]. Jim had the vision and foresight and boldness to dare to try to enforce that right through a series of landmark lawsuits.”
As a boss, Jensen had your back. He trusted his staff and created humane working conditions in an arena known for burnout. His business background combined with the best hire of his career – Adam McLane – helped make MEIC financially secure. He was able to retain staff because he strongly promoted a healthy work/life balance, good employee healthcare, and a commitment to enjoying the places MEIC sought to protect. People were often fooled by his tough exterior, but to those who knew him, he was an old softie. Robin Tawney Nichols said Jim is still one of her great friends, and his ability to listen to others helped him make crucial connections.
In fact, Jensen has a great knack for remembering people and their relationships. He knows who was connected to who and how. While he loves giving history lessons on politicians and movers and shakers, his ignorance of pop culture was astounding. When he was once called Eeyore from “Winnie the Pooh,” he asked, “Who’s that?” And when someone referenced Dr. Suess’ “The Lorax,” he gave a blank look (don’t worry, Pat Judge educated him with a signed copy).
His conservative upbringing in Utah made him an unlikely environmental advocate. While others of his generation were smoking pot and hanging out, he was wearing a tie to school every day and voting Republican. His straightlaced attitudes were a constant source of hilarity for his staff but ultimately helped him better understand the opposition.
Jensen was – and still is – one-of-a-kind. So when you float the Blackfoot River, hike in the Cabinet Mountains, or appreciate the lack of open-pit cyanide heap leach mines across the state, think of Jensen and his unwavering commitment to leaving this place better than he found it.
This article was published in the September 2023 issue of Down To Earth.