A Letter to the Editor, published in the Missoulian a few weeks ago:
A summer of raging Montana wildfires has us thinking about the air we breathe. But more than that: Think air quality monitoring, oil spill prevention, toxic clean-up, pollution regulations, healthy ecosystems and drinking water safety are important? I do. That’s why my family has accepted an invitation from Moms Clean Air Force to travel to Washington, D.C. next week to meet with Senators Tester and Daines and Representative Gianforte.
We will ask them to oppose the 30% cut to the EPA’s budget proposed by the Trump administration. Budget cuts to the entity addressing public health and environmental threats are shortsighted and irresponsible. For our land, for our kids.
In our meetings, I hope we can steady ourselves on that Montana common ground – where everyone waves on a dirt road, bull trout are revered, and the Big Sky expands our perspectives. Because on that patriotic, sturdy foundation, we can get stuff done.
I look forward to talking with those we elected to represent Montana values. In our state, we define “rich” a bit differently — our currency is in mountains, our industry in recreation, our savings in rivers, our equity in the next generation. Our representatives need to Represent.
Nici Holt Cline, Missoula, Montana
And we went! The Moms Clean Air Force is a special project of the Environmental Defense Fund and when they (MCAF Montana Field Consultants Melissa Nootz and Erica Lighthiser) first asked me to be the Montana mom constituent, my initial reaction was fear so I knew I had to say yes. Turns out it was probably the coolest opportunity that’s come my bloggy way.
We landed in our hotel after midnight with our first meeting the following morning. I woke and readied, wiping mud and dust off my heels, wondering if I were smart enough or fancy enough to pull this off. I felt so nervous, really wanting to do a good job. How can I communicate how much I care? Will I be heard? Does party tribalism trump smart dialog? I am good at finding common ground and I kept returning to this: we are all humans with brains and hearts and this is just a conversation. An important one.
Moms Clean Air Force included my whole family in this adventure and it became a wonderfully stirring and educational experience to spend a few months studying the EPA, environmental issues in Montana, proposed undoing of regulations and policy, voting records and stated promises of our elected officials and just how this would all go down…what did we want to say? My kids were nervous to speak up (me too!) and so we talked and talked about the things I mention up there in my letter to the editor. It felt so good to be a student of a thing, to get fired up. A few things they said in meetings:
Margot: I don’t get it. Why would people want things to happen that pollute the air? I mean, doesn’t everybody have to breathe the same air that we do? You don’t get to pick your air.
Ruby: I love to garden with my mom and swim in rivers. I want the soil and water to be safe.
Margot: We learned on Wow in the World that kids do better in school when they have lots of recess. We’ve had indoor recess for a month because of the wildfire smoke.
In the car on the way to our first meeting with Daine’s Legislative Aide Sophie Miller. Eric, Uber driver from Ghana, has lived in D.C. for many years. He is a retired father of two children who are now in graduate school. He drove us to our first meeting on the hill. He sobbed while he spoke with incredible passion and energy.
“You are doing something. You are DOING something. I think that’s wonderful. People need to speak up and do the right thing for the people. They must. Most people who are born here take advantage of this country. I love this country. You must speak up! You get to speak up. You reap what you sow.”
“Mama it seems like you guys are arguing,” Margot noticed at one heated meeting.
I told her we were arguing. That this is what it sounds like when humans feel passionate about their values and try to connect and learn. It’s called debate. It’s so important. It’s healthy and pushes us to dig into our guts, flip our worlds inside out and truly listen and grow. We had some easy meetings and some tough meetings. I liked the tough ones best because I had to rely on my heartwords even if they weren’t the perfect ones and I truly understood this right we have to speak up. Our Uber driver Eric helped me remember that I don’t fear exile or arrest or assassination for exposing my beliefs. The tough ones stretched me to speak up when being talked over or manipulated into a different subject.
In the bathroom at the Hart Senate Office Building, an old woman in a wheelchair who maneuvered around bathroom sinks and my bouncing kid. “She’s independent. I can tell,” she said smiling. As I washed my hands we had a brief exchange about kids and how to best celebrate their fire, how to parent in tandem with the flames. She held her hand in the air and said:
“Whatever the question, love is the answer.”
My big, beautiful takeaway from our D.C. adventure is hope and motivation. Revivification. Washington is full of enthusiastic people who want to make a great difference. It’s not – at all – all fraud and greed and gridlock. There is a lot of good happening, a lot of trying.
My neighbor and dear friend Bobby Tilton:
“Give em hell but bake it in a pie.”
We all have moments of feeling the weight of so much brokenness, so much need, so many causes…sometimes so much so much that inspiration morphs into apathy. Sometimes it’s too easy to focus on corruption and polarization of belief and just give up. I mean, what can we *really* do?
A lot. At the very least we can show our kids the worthy things: the ability to speak up and show up, the power of information, the courage to say out loud the things held in our hearts, the importance of believing in a thing.
I made some friends in each office we visited and I look forward to keeping the conversation going because, hell, we need more purple chit chat.
On our way to a Capitol Tour. Our Uber driver, Mir, was from Afghanistan. An interpreter who worked for the US government during some crazy scary situations. It took him three years to get his wife to the US. He now has a daughter. He doesn’t fear anything because “It doesn’t matter what people think of me, of who I am or where I should live. As long as I am good in my soul, I am good. I have nothing to hide.” He wants to teach his daughter only this:
“We are all born without clothes. We are all born without a name. We are all born without a nationality. We are all born without a religion. We are all born human. We only need to know 2 words, 10 letters: HUMAN. PEACE.”
And I must insert a bit about how proud I am of my kids! They sat through hours and hours of meetings at giant tables. They spoke up and listened and asked good questions. They walked for many miles absorbing so much history and information and then, when their legs grew tired, climbed onto our backs for more. They learned hard, dark things about our history and wrote stories puzzling out their aspirations and intentions.
And I feel so proud of my husband. He is brilliant and mindful and supportive of our daughters and me. We managed to score a meeting with Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s (!!) Advisor Amanda Kaster-Averill where we had the opportunity to announce our fierce support of protecting our national parks and monuments. And after a few dizzying twists in the conversation, my husband got mad and with his anger, came a poignant, fact-based monologue about contracts with for-profit companies that make millions off resources that occupy land that belongs to the public, pinch off our access to the land, screw up the ecosystem and make mess for us to deal with. It blew us all away. She took notes and I hope they were delivered to Secretary Zinke.
I could do a post on each of these meetings but will instead give you a wee paragraph on each.
Rep. Greg Gianforte
Can’t even tell you how empowering it was to feel my heart pounding with frustration and to lock eyeballs with Gianforte and say, “can I please finish a sentence?” and to get the response I’d hoped for: an apology and room at the table. Sometimes habit overrules decency and all we have to do to right it is point it out. Our initial interaction was frustrating but he softened and was especially kind to my daughters, picking up on their nervousness. We ended up spending two hours together and he took my kids out on the House floor to vote with him. Maybe you saw my girls on c-psan?! I do feel like Gianforte gave us time and he listened, which I truly appreciated. We had lively debate about fire management and industry regulation while walking through secret hallways to the voting chamber. A favorite moment, after hearing about “government overreach”: Andy pointing to all the wilderness photos on his office walls and saying, “Looking at what you choose to showcase, clearly you value our protected wild lands.” We befriended Tripp McKemey, Gianforte’s Legislative Assistant and shared a beer later that night. He is enthusiastic and eager, ready to debate with respect and passion. I joked when we parted ways that he really can’t be all that conservative…I look forward to following up with him and our Rep to work on some things we chatted about (I’ll share as they unfold).
Senator Steve Daines
We had coffee with Senator Daines and he casually said, “don’t worry about it” several times. In response to pretty much everything I said: don’t worry about it. Additionally, he answered all my questions to Andy which honestly blew my mind (Andy noticed immediately and moved behind me, forcing Daines to look at me). So I stood tall told him I traveled a long way to chat with him and I’d like to actually have a conversation. He didn’t say much of anything really. The whole exchange felt generic and unsatisfying. My positive here is Daines’s Administrative Aide, Sophie Miller. She is professional, kind, aware, sincere and a good communicator. I look forward to speaking with her more.
Senator Jon Tester
Our meeting with Senator Tester was inspiring and respectful. He is a fabulous listener and genuinely wants to grow and learn and cares to hear from Montanans. He embodies Public Servant. It true that he most closely aligns with my personal values, but besides that, he is just a really decent and smart man who doesn’t focus on talking points and catch phrases. Did you know that Montana has a $7.1 billion recreation industry? I learned that from Tester’s Administrative Assistant Henry Ring. He said, “why is nobody talking about it?” and I agree. I look forward to learning more about this.
We noticed Daines and Gianforte prefer to focus on tangible, actionable things. They were both eager to talk about and advocate SuperFund cleanup but not interested in talking about how to prevent future messes, eager to talk about bull trout and elk conservation but not interested in talking about habitat impacts of public land use and resource extraction. It was baffling for sure but good information regarding how can get stuff done. And that was why we were there: to get stuff done. We focused on tangible, actionable things regarding our new reality of wildfire smoke air. In addition to supporting EPA funding and initiatives, we asked for HEPA filtration systems in public schools and increased air quality monitoring stations around our state (we currently have only a few and many towns don’t know what they’re breathing).
“People do things for their own reasons. Not for your reasons.”
If you are motivated to advocate for these things, please contact our elected officials and tell them so.
It’s easy to say “I love Montana” but how will you act? You were hired to represent Montanans and we care about our environment. We are campers, hunters, hikers, bikers, anglers, swimmers, snowmobilers, appreciators of clean air and water, producers of the next generation of Montanans. It takes integrity and foresight to speak up against unsustainable, quick-fix “job creation” that feeds the machine built to extract Montana and leave the mess for Montanans to clean up. Do we want to be leaders? Pioneering technology and industry? Protecting the health of our communities and the land we inhabit? What do we have to lose in being visionary and proactive?
Steve Daines (202) 224-2651
Greg Gianforte (202) 225-3211
Jon Tester (202) 228-1276
ps The voting has happened and the spending package was passed to fund EPA at current levels through December.
Finishing with this, that I wrote at the end of all of our meetings.
keep looking up
keep inhaling deep
keep asking questions
cartwheeling in the halls
listening to the wisdom you were born with
tucking under the rope
using your strength
hugging like it’s always the best one
asking for help
taking your shoes off
dreaming bigger than allowed
OH WOW…you brought me to tears!
Burb! What an inspiring piece & the photos are over the moon! I love this on every level and you on the highest one!
xoxo, your Mama