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Big Sky Connection

The Montana Constitution guarantees the right to a clean and healthful environment. It's a unique provision that conservationists say has helped protect the environment since the constitution was ratified 50 years ago. Comments from Sen. Pat Flowers, D-Belgrade; Sen. Janet Ellis, D-Helena; and Rep. Willis Curdy, D-Missoula.

Eric Tegethoff - The Montana Constitution goes beyond even the U.S. Constitution in its protections of the environment. (stevengaertner/Adobe Stock)

April 11, 2022

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Montana Constitution. The document is unique among constitutions, in part, because it recognizes the "right to a clean and healthful environment."


Montana lawmakers focused on conservation said the provision is an important foundation for protecting land, water and air.


Sen. Pat Flowers, D-Belgrade, said the constitutional provision speaks to Montanans appreciation for land and water.


"That language has allowed us to really support conservation efforts in this state, support just basic environmental health in this state," Flowers explained. "I think without it, we're very vulnerable."


Montana's second constitution was ratified by voters June 6, 1972. According to legal scholars, the biggest test for the provision was in 1999, when the Montana Supreme Court ruled the right is preventive, meaning it can be used to protect the environment before it was harmed.


Sen. Janet Ellis, D-Helena, represented the Montana Audubon on issues in the Legislature before she became a lawmaker herself.


"There were a lot of bills specifically directed at defining a clean and healthful environment to be a little less than clean and healthful," Ellis recounted. "There's just been a lot of attacks over the years of that provision, and it is very, very important."


Rep. Willis Curdy, D-Missoula, said the constitutional right also helps to undergird the state's economy.


"By following the whole idea of a clean and healthful environment, we have attracted a tremendous recreational industry to this state," Curdy pointed out. "Maintaining clean air, clean water, that has really made tourism literally the number two economy in the state and is a big driver."


The outdoor recreation industry contributes $7.1 billion to Montana's economy each year and supports more than 70,000 jobs.