Five Minutes With
Governor Brian Schweitzer
Just three years into his new career in electoral politics, Governor Brian Schweitzer of Montana has been heralded as the epitome of an important new movement: prairie populism. A lifelong Montanan with a background in science and a career in international business, the political neophyte ran for governor of Montana as a Democrat in 2004 and won, even though the state voted for President Bush by a wide margin. Since then Schweitzer has set out to make his name on a handful of important issues in the West: creating clean energy, defending water and wildlife, protecting local farmers, and helping Native American tribes retain their traditions in public education. Campus Progress spoke with Schweitzer on the phone about his signature issues, and his penchant for casual clothing.
You were not a political figure for most of your life. What made you decide to go into politics?
I think if you look at the direction this country has taken over the last ten years and you are passionate about your community and you don’t get involved in politics, you are going to regret it later on. We need talented, new people in politics, and I simply just said, “I think I can do a better job than the jokers who are doing it now.” We need people who are willing to step up, people who will bring a new perspective to leadership—and that’s what I was doing.
There’s a lot of talk here in Washington about whether the Rocky Mountain West, a traditionally conservative region, is going to open up and turn purple or blue. Do you think it will, and if so, why?
On the East and West Coast people look at the map of the center of the country and they draw lines that are red and blue on it. But people don’t get up in the morning and go off to work thinking they’re red or blue. They don’t sit down with their family thinking they’re red or blue. They don’t go to church on Sunday thinking they’re red or blue. We just don’t think about it that way out here.
In the Rocky Mountain West, we have a tradition of libertarian populists. And out here in Montana, we didn’t like the notion of having this PATRIOT Act that allows the federal government to spy on us and collect a lot of other financial information about law abiding citizens. We didn’t have to see the report come out to see that the FBI would abuse this—every time they’ve been given this power in the past, they have, and they did again this time.
And the greatest thing about Montana and the Rocky Mountain West is that you’re never more than 30 minutes from great trout fishing. You’re never more than 30 minutes from a place where you can hike. You can raise a family, and that family not only will grow up being able to camp, hunt, and fish, but to hike in some of the most pristine places left on the planet, drink the water and eat the fish that you catch in that stream.
We want to protect that, so when Washington, D.C. has notions about coming out here and digging up all of Montana and drilling wells everyplace that we’ve got across the state, saying, “Well, we need your energy and we’re willing to sacrifice your backyard,” folks in Montana say, “No, I don’t think so.” We could produce our energy with alternative energy; We don’t want you to destroy our backyard.
You’ve been very involved in promoting alternative energy.
The whole great plains were electrified with diversified, clean, and green energy. All the farms had wind turbines; they all had batteries in their basements. And then this new plan came in and copper wires arrived at all the farms and small towns and they were hooked to a coal plant 1,000 miles away.
Now we’re trying to figure out how we can get back to clean and green energy. We were there 75 years ago. Of course we can produce our own electricity with solar and wind power and other sources. Of course we can do it, because we have done it before. Unless we get serious, unless we start capturing the carbon that’s coming from the coal fired plants that we have in America today—they produce 50 percent of the electricity in America—we are going to increase the CO2 in our atmosphere by another 200 parts per million. The consequences of that are going to be just extraordinary in this country and around the world. What we need is Congress to get serious. We need a system that rewards those who decrease their carbon footprint and a system that penalizes those who increase their carbon footprint. We need $10 billion in a private-public partnership of research and development during the next five years, spent solely on carbon capture and carbon sequestration technology. Unless we get serious about it in this country, it’ll be too late not only for the next generation, but the current generation.
Speaking of climate change, some say that Glacier National Park in Montana is going to have to change its name because all the glaciers are melting. Is there anything you can do as Governor of Montana on a micro level to try and preserve some of those places?
Well, one of things that I’ve done is appoint a climate change commission here in Montana. Not because we think we can change the world, because Montana’s carbon footprint, compared to the carbon footprint of the entire world, is squat, but because we have to be prepared for the changes that are already occurring. We’re getting less snow in the high country that’s melting sooner. Glaciers that typically lasted all the way through the summer are now melting—in fact, about 80 percent of the glaciers in Glacier National Park are already gone and we’re going to lose the next 20.
We have a change occurring in our timber make-up. Where we have our spruce forests, the spruce budworm is multiplying at a rate unprecedented because our Marches are not cold enough to arrest their development. So now in Montana and British Columbia, we have millions of acres of spruce trees that are dying. The consequences of that are, as they die, they will become dryer, there will be lightning, and there will be huge forest fires. 900,000 acres burned in Montana last year. As the climate is changing and becoming warmer, there will be species composition changes. In the process, species die and then they burn. That puts even more CO2 in the atmosphere. With earlier snow melt, we have less water stored for irrigation, for hydroelectric production, and for clean water.
Montana is the source of water for our entire country. Seventy percent of the water that flows in the Missouri River drainage system to some 20 states comes from the snow melt in Montana. Fifty percent of the water stored in the Columbia River basin system comes from the snow melt in Montana, and Montana is the only place in the United States where water flows to the Atlantic, the Pacific, and to the Arctic Ocean. We are the headwater state, and when Montana is getting less snow that means less water for you. When Montana has dirtier water, it means less clean water for you. You want to follow what happens in Montana if you are concerned about quality drinking water in this country because we are your supply.
I’ve got bad news for you: We’re getting less snow, it’s melting sooner, we’re getting more fires that are destroying this filtration system, and the future doesn’t look bright unless we can arrest this climate change.
Is there anything the rest of the country can learn from Montana, and innovations going on there to make the whole water system work better?
I wish I could report good news to you, but unfortunately what I am going to describe for you is this: In western Montana where we have these pristine valleys that are surrounded by wonderful mountains and great trout fisheries, people are coming in unprecedented numbers.
So what we are trying to do is create a land use planning system so that we will continue to have greenbelts and not just houses. We’re tying to get ahead of this growth by planning our road system so that we have smart growth, not just big growth. What we are trying to do is create a system so that as these people come here, we will be able to maintain our quality of life and not have a big traffic mess like what is occurring on the Rocky Mountain front, in Washington, in Oregon, and in California. Folks need to plan not just five years in advance but 50 years in advance. I want communities in Montana to be attractive for families to raise their kids in the next generation, for 50 to 100 years to come, and it starts right now in deciding where you’re going to build your roads and having good land use planning.
When you came to speak here at the Center for American Progress, you wore a bolo tie. Is that your usual outfit when you go over to the statehouse and everything?
Well I’m sitting in my office right now, I’ve got my feet up on my desk and I’m looking at a pair of black cowboy boots. Above them I got a pair of half wore-out blue jeans. I got a blue denim shirt and a bolo tie on. And as I look on my desk, there are a couple pieces of paper, but the most obvious thing is a big beaker full of bio-diesel and a half dozen other beakers that have got different seeds from different crops that you can produce bio-diesel from. I’ve got a couple of wind turbines in my window. I’ve got a rifle hanging on the wall. I’ve got a solar powered hydrogen generator sitting on my desk. So that’s what we do everyday in addition to having my border collie sitting right here at my feet.
Well if you do come to Washington, please bring the dress code.
I’ve got to tell you, when I go to Washington, I do. I’m almost always wearing my jeans. I was invited to speak to the Senate Finance Committee about alternative energy and carbon sequestration a few weeks ago, and it was during the same week we have the National Governors Association meeting. So testifying before the U.S. Senate, the finance committee, I said to them that I appreciated that they had scheduled this hearing in the same time I was in Washington, D.C. for the National Governors Association meeting because I said to them, “You see, I rented this suit for the whole week, and so I managed to get several meetings out of one suit.”
Illustration: August J. Pollak
- Would This Make You Go To The Top Of The World And Back? [INTERVIEW]
- How School, Stigmas, And The Sequester Impact The Fight Against Hunger [INTERVIEW]
- Shane Bitney Crone; Young Marriage Activist [VIDEO]
- Jane Lynch: ‘Younger Generations Have Always Been Progressive’
- Tapping For Tuition: Penn State Student Dances to Fund His Education