Harmon’s Histories: In final class, UM’s Toole warned of corporate greed, rapacious development
By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current
“There are, I think, undeniably, new winds sweeping across America. They are indeed gusty and changeable, but they are new - and they will alter what happens in Montana ... (either for) better or worse, (depending) on Montanans and how they, or you, read those winds.”
The quote is from one of my favorite historians, K. Ross Toole, a Montana rancher who accepted the Hammond Professorship at the University of Montana in 1965 – a post he held until his death in 1981.
For the most part, he taught graduate classes, but it was his undergraduate course titled “Montana and the West” for which he will be most remembered. Some have said, in any four-year period, he probably taught more than half the University’s student body!
His final lecture in the "Montana/West" series was taped (both audio and video) for KUFM Public Radio & TV just before his death from cancer in 1981.
Those recordings, now over 40 years old, are available to all at the Missoula Public Library.
Toole was deeply concerned about corporate greed vs. “the will of the people to protect the land they love.”
He said, “Surrounded by vast natural wealth, we almost always fell short of cashing in. Somehow, the real wealth always floats outward.”
Per capita income in 1950 was about 8% above the national average. By 1968, said Toole, we had fallen 14% below the national average, and in 1980 we were about 21% below the national average. Studies indicated it would only get worse.
Despite that, Toole remained optimistic. “America has not yet run out of space, but it has about run out of quality space - and it is quality space that Montana has in abundance.”
Historically, wide open spaces were a curse (distance to markets). But with the coming of the railroads, and later the Interstate highways, those spaces became easily accessible to eastern markets.
That accessibility in modern times, he warned, would lead to a desire for short term profits. “We can indeed pollute and sell our water, we can develop our valleys, we can strip our coal, we can cut our trees, and say (as we have always said before) “you come, you bring some cash, and you rip it, and you rape it, and you rob it, and you move on.”
But the people of Montana, he said, have the power. “We can say you come and you develop our valleys but ... no development is welcome which depreciates the look and the value of the land for people."
Zoning and land-use planning (in the 1980s) were “filthy words.” But Toole urged that we “had better reexamine those words and our attitudes toward those things because zoned and controlled, we are going to be - there's no question about that.”
“The question is, will we do it to and for ourselves? Or will it be done for us by outsiders, to and for themselves and to our detriment? That has been the case for 150 years, we ought to stop it.”
He suggested, “Gather together a group of people about as follows: the Governor, the State Land Board, the Public Service Commission, the Director of State Planning and Economic Development, the Board of Natural Resources and Conservation, Environmental Quality Council, the legislators, the mayors, and the county commissioners.”
Tell the group: “Ladies and gentlemen, it is getting late, very late. We want to grow but we never never again want to be raped or exploited. You will act and act now, so that in (the future) no young man or young woman will leave this state because it cannot provide him or her with a job.”
“And no person at all will leave the state because it has dirty and stinking water and treeless and grass-less land. You are not to act for yourselves or for now. You are to act for others and the future.”
“And if you will not do this, one by one and then dozens by dozens, we will remove you. And we will put people in your places who know, as you do not, where the winds are tending.”
Toole told his audience not to wait for their elected politicians to act. “Contrary to much popular opinion, politicians very rarely lead; they follow. And there is almost always a lag between what people want and what politicians think you want.”
In so many words – get off your tushes and act; demand your representatives in Montana and in Washington confront corporate power, and work across the aisle, and do it before it’s too late.
“I suppose that only a practiced cynic would positively assert that you will not, but only a very naive person would positively assert that you will,” said Toole.
“The point is that these new winds, both good and evil, are blowing - and there is a stirring across this land. There is still a chance (though I think it may be our last one) and I think that you had better try and try terribly hard.”
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at email@example.com. His best-selling book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is available at harmonshistories.com.