Friday, August 5, 2005

Why not 'inalienable rights' to clean Idaho environment?

Tucked away in an otherwise foreboding diet of news the other day was a morsel of tentatively good news worthy of a slap on the back for Idaho.

The Wildlife Conservation Society along with Columbia University's Center for International Earth Science Foundation Network announced that Central Idaho is one of the few places in the lower 48 states where pristine lands still exist.

"A crown jewel of American natural areas," proclaimed The New York Times in reporting the finding. "The healthiest part of the Columbia River Basin," according to a Forest Service study.

But for how long, with laws protecting the environment and the nation's public lands falling away fast?

The answer may lie in Montana's Constitution. Under "Inalienable Rights" in Section 3 of Article II, it asserts: "All persons are born free and have certain inalienable rights. They include the right to a clean and healthful environment ... "

To bolster that guarantee, the Montana Constitution also includes Section 1 of Article IX, which reads: "The state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations."

Montanans included the amendments no doubt anticipating some future era in which the environment would be abused and exploited. How prescient they were.

In 1999, the constitutional provisions were tested and upheld. Speaking for a majority of the Montana Supreme Court, Justice Terry Trieweiler wrote, "Our constitution does not require that dead fish float on the surface of our state's rivers and streams before its farsighted environmental protections can be invoked."

In Montana, the Legislature is obliged to weigh every decision that affects the environment with seriousness, lest laws be declared unconstitutional.

Idaho, as "a crown jewel of American natural areas," surely deserves no less protection than our Montana neighbor.

Before the state's pristine grandeur vanishes, and new industries are licensed to foul water and air in the name of profit, Idaho's environmental groups should mobilize a statewide effort to amend the constitution with guarantees of inalienable rights to a clean, healthful environment.

Such a constitutional guarantee would bar any state or local government from ignoring environmental concerns.

Other states that have placed industry above the environment have harvested devastating consequences—dirty air and water that affect health of residents and provide ugly visual surroundings in cities.

Idaho still has time, albeit limited, to protect its treasures.

Idaho could help turn Montana's precedent into a movement that could spread to other states fed up with abuses of the environment.

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