The Montana Constitution and Northern Plains: Protecting our state since 1972

In the early 1970s, something revolutionary happened. Everyday Montanans rose up, demanding a new constitution with expanded rights and freedoms that center power in the hands of the people. Burgeoning national movements seeking equal rights along race, gender, and cultural lines inspired action. Our society was evolving, and people expected more from their governments and from one another.

Montana’s constitution was seen as archaic, unable to meet the challenges the times required. This surge of democratic action was also a response to corrupt industrialists and compromised politicians who had misused their power, striking self-serving deals in private, smoke-filled rooms far from public view.

The legacy of the copper kings and the environmental disasters that resulted from irresponsible mining were impossible to ignore. The first Earth Day had recently been celebrated. Montanans were tired of big business coming in to the state to extract wealth while buying political influence to evade their responsibilities to clean up their messes or follow the law. At the same time, Montana stood on the precipice of further environmental destruction with the North Central Power Study looming.

This study was a plan concocted by a coalition of government agencies and energy companies that sought to bulldoze and carve up massive swaths of eastern Montana for fossil fuel extraction, designating the entire region a “sacrifice area” for the energy demands of the nation. Of course, the North Central Power Study also served as a primary motivating factor for the founding of Northern Plains as farm and ranch families banded together to protect their land and livelihoods from this encroaching threat. The connections between Northern Plains and Montana’s grassroots movement for foundational reform do not stop here.

In November of 1971, 100 Montanans from all walks of life – farmers, ranchers, teachers, attorneys, Democrats, Republicans, and independents – were elected to the Constitutional Convention. The body met in Helena over two months holding open meetings to develop the new document. They completed the drafting in March of 1972, only one month before what we now consider to be the first meeting of our organization, when the name “Northern Plains Resource Council” was first proposed. It’s uncertain how many of the 100 members of “ConCon” went on to become Northern Plains members, but we know many did. Two members with strong connections to Northern Plains are worth noting.

Louise Cross of Glendive served as the chair of ConCon’s Natural Resources Committee. Cross’s leadership was essential in ensuring that our “right to a clean and healthful environment” was enshrined into our Bill of Rights. Louise went on to become a Northern Plains member and leader within our eastern Montana affiliate Dawson Resource Council, where she helped protect Makoshika State Park from destructive oil and gas extraction.

Attorney Leo Graybill served as the President of ConCon. Graybill guided the entire process, including the challenging work of ratifying the groundbreaking document in June of 1972. Graybill later became an important ally of Northern Plains, conducting our legal work to protect Rosebud County residents and Northern Plains members as Colstrip sought to expand their power plants, threatening local agriculture.

The connections between the Montana Constitution and Northern Plains are both personal and profound. 34 rights were granted by this revolutionary new document – rights that are more clearly articulated than in almost any other constitution in the nation. Because of the work of people like Louise and Leo, we have a right to know what our government does (no more smoke-filled, closed-door rooms) and a right to participate. As noted, we have a right to a clean and healthful environment.

Without these rights, Northern Plains could not do our work. Shortly after the Constitution’s ratification, we used these rights to pass major legislative reforms involving reclamation and water use. Few, if any, of the other campaign victories we’ve won during our 50-year history could have succeeded without our right to be in the room, aware of what our decision-makers are doing, participating in the process.

We are fiercely proud of our constitution, written by Montanans for Montanans. We know that many of the rights and freedoms we hold dear could be under threat during the 2023 legislative session if politicians and special interests try to dismantle this sacred document. We also know that Northern Plains members will fight to keep the Montana Constitution wholly intact, protecting our freedoms for this and future generations.

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