By Amanda Eggert, Montana Free Press
Article II Section 3: Section?3: All persons are born free and have certain inalienable rights. They include the right to a clean and healthful environment and the rights of pursuing life’s basic necessities, enjoying and defending their lives and liberties, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and seeking their safety, health and happiness in all lawful ways. In enjoying these rights, all persons recognize corresponding responsibilities.
As unlikely as it may seem today, when attitudes toward overarching environmental concerns like climate change align along reliably partisan fault lines, many of the country’s bedrock environmental protections enjoyed widespread bipartisan support when Republican President Richard Nixon was in the White House. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the U.S. Senate unanimously approved landmark laws like the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act — measures that garnered yes votes from more than 95% of U.S. House members as well. Near-universal support for these and other environmental measures helps illustrate the national mood in 1972, when 100 Montana delegates convened in Helena for the Constitutional Convention.
It was a time when western Montana rivers like the Clark Fork were laden with heavy metal contamination from industrial mining, terraced clear cuts were en vogue on the Bitterroot National Forest, and air in the Missoula valley was sometimes so thick with pulp mill pollution that Mount Sentinel was rendered invisible from downtown. Enshrining a new approach to environmental protection beyond what was afforded by the 1889 Constitution, which had been drafted under the leadership of Butte copper baron and pollution apologist William A. Clark, was top of mind for Bob Campbell and Mae Nan Ellingson, two convention delegates who hailed from Missoula.
In addition to championing key environmental protections, Ellingson and Campbell were the primary authors of the Constitution’s poetic preamble, which reads like a portrait of the extraordinary backdrop against which delegates prioritized the values of their time and their hopes for future generations of Montanans:
“We the people of Montana grateful to God for the quiet beauty of our state, the grandeur of our mountains, the vastness of our rolling plains, and desiring to improve the quality of life, equality of opportunity and to secure the blessings of liberty for this and future generations do ordain and establish this constitution.”
To better understand how key environmental and natural resource provisions in the Montana Constitution have played out in the 50 years since Campbell and Ellingson wrote that preamble, Montana Free Press interviewed legal scholars, environmental activists and practicing attorneys for their perspectives on how the Montana Constitution has, sometimes literally, shaped the Treasure State.