An estimated 600 people from throughout Montana rallied at the state Capitol at noon Monday to show their anger with legislative proposals that they believe would harm the environment.

Holding signs that read “2011 legislature, you’re fired!” and “A clean environment is good for the economy,” the raucous crowd chanted slogans and listened to 1960s protest songs as they gathered for about an hour in 20-degree temperatures.

Denise Juneau, superintendent of public instruction, fired up the crowd when she motioned to the statehouse and said that legislators inside were “introducing unconstitutional laws that make the state I love the laughing stock of the country.”

“They’re making public employees punching bags. They’re inside, slashing and burning MEPA (the Montana Environmental Policy Act). They’re saying climate change is a good thing. They’re gutting the Endangered Species Act. They’re attempting to change the constitutional mandate for a clean and healthful environment,” Juneau said.

“But don’t be disheartened. Our job is to build a sustained movement that goes beyond the last election with community activism to make ordinary voices extraordinary.”

The rally was brought together from a wide range of environmental and wildlife organizations, according to Ed Gulick with the Northern Plains Resource Council. The impetus for the gathering came from the feeling that the fundamental beliefs many Montanans hold dear are being trampled during this session, and they want the legislators to know people are upset. After the rally they filled the Senate gallery in a show of support for environmental protections.

“The message is jobs are a big theme here, and there is a notion that jobs and the environment are an ‘either or’ decision,” Gulick said. “That’s not the case at all. You can have good public policies and you can have both.”

Janet Zimmerman of Pony traveled to Helena for the rally in support of a healthful environment, and also to speak out against the recent appearance of Rep. Bob Wagner, R-Harrison, on Anderson Cooper’s CNN television show. Wagner is a member of the “birthers” group that doesn’t believe Barack Obama is a natural born citizen of the United States, which would mean he’s not qualified to be president.

“I want people in the Legislature to know that Bob Wagner doesn’t represent everyone in Madison County,” Zimmerman said. “Also, Montanans have worked very hard since the 1970s, when they threw off the copper collar with the Legislature and the laws. The current environmental laws reflect the wishes of Montanans for a clean and healthful environment.”

Diane Elliott added that the other big issue for her is renewable energy.

“It does produce jobs. So does conservation and that isn’t being heard here,” Elliott said. “I’m here because I care and I think it’s important to stand up and be heard.”

Author and conservationist Jim Posewitz told the crowd that grizzly bears roam here, the wolf again howls at the moon and “the buffalo now demands to be more than an inconvenient truth” because Montanans said “no” to a range of proposals including channelizing trout streams and seismic exploration of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area. Instead, they supported creating wildlife management areas, resurrected the Clark Fork River by removing the Milltown Dam and included having a clean and healthful environment in the constitution.

“Those of us who hunt and fish have enjoyed our role in the battles it took to make this last best place more than a sound bite,” Posewitz said.

Tom France with the National Wildlife Federation noted that environmental issues aren’t limited to Montana, and he urged the crowd to contact their congressional representatives in Washington, D.C., as they vote this week to do away with numerous programs. The House of Representatives zeroed out state wildlife grants programs, tribal lands programs and cut the Land and Water Conservation Fund by 75 percent, France said.

“These guys went at the budget with an ax and never asked what kind of legacy they’ll leave,” France said. “We need to ask the Senate to bring some sense to this drama.

“… I know they have to figure out the budget, but conservation should not be on the cutting block when it will harm this and future generations.”

Katie Knight of Helena said that was the reason she braved the cold to attend the rally.

“I’m a grandmother and I’d like my children and grandchildren to have the quality of life we have here in Montana,” Knight said.

Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or eve.byron@helenair.com

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