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Ron Marlenee Was A Proud Burr In The Hiking Boots Of Environmentalists

The former Montana Congressman who died this week could be prickly but he delighted in delivering zingers and representing rural people

The late Ron Marlenee.  Photo courtesy US Congressional Archives
The late Ron Marlenee. Photo courtesy US Congressional Archives
Those were the days, my friends, and, yes, we young journalists believed they would never end—the times when a different subset of environmental issues loomed larger in our Northern Rockies states, and reporters followed around two Congressmen in Montana, one from each opposing party. 

We dutifully took notes as they held forth, wielding their own entertaining brand of rhetorical pugilism. This was before the internet, iPhones, texting, Twitter, Instagram, selfies and, of course, Zoom. This was the age when generations young and old took part in a morning ritual: reading the daily newspaper delivered to their doorstep. It was the end of an era when you found a phone booth and called in your story to a rewrite. 

 In so many ways, it was a time of greater clarity when citizens had a higher intelligence quotient when it came to understanding government and a better working knowledge of civics.

Wyomingites of a certain age reading this will know immediately what I mean when invoking the names Pat Williams and Ron Marlenee. For years they had a similar kind of firebrand legislator in U.S. Sen. Alan K. Simpson from Cody, who relished delivering master classes in how to tangle with the media using homespun missives. Simpson prided himself on self-invented turns of phrases that possessed the same raucous flavor as anything ginned up by Mark Twain or Will Rogers. 

Williams and Marlenee had their own ways with words and you could see a twinkle in their eyes emerge as they were about to uncork one for public consumption. They spoke slow enough to make sure you captured it. After learning from scientists that proposed geothermal development at La Duke Hot Spring in the Upper Yellowstone River Valley by the Church Universal and Triumphant might harm the geothermal wonders in nearby Yellowstone Park, Williams introduced a bill in Congress. 

While conferring with we reporters on the edge of Yellowstone, he said there should be no misunderstanding the purpose of “The Old Faithful Protection Act.” Repeating the same phrase later in Washington DC, he said, “So that there can be no doubt about my full intentions, let me say it for you. It is iron-clad, copper-riveted, rock-ribbed, no-nonsense, zero-risk protection for Yellowstone National Park.” 

Notable is that often votes cast in the House of Representatives by Williams and Marlenee cancelled each other out.  They had opposing worldviews. The pompadour-styled Marlenee delighted in being a nemesis to environmentalists. 

After the 1990 US Census, Montana learned it was losing one of its two seats in Congress, thereby setting up a showdown between the two incumbents in 1992. Williams, a schoolteacher and Democrat, was descended from copper miners in Butte and the cousin of Evel Knievel. Marlenee, a rancher, farmer and auctioneer, hailed from Scobey only a few miles from Saskatchewan.

The great Washington Post environmental reporter Tom Kenworthy assembled a portrait of Marlenee, writing: "He has the build of a former boxer who's given up on his road work. Barrel chest. Round face. Strong jaw. Big powerful hands, rancher's hands. And a reflexive, half-cocky grin that explodes across his face when he's talking tough. Which for Ron Marlenee these days is most of the time."

Kenworthy added, "He drives a pickup, has his Washington office decorated with hunting trophies, and likes to pose for pictures with a 30.06 in his hands. He once crashed a pro-gun-control press conference at the Capitol Police firing range, grabbed a semiautomatic Uzi that was on display, and squeezed off a few rounds. Ron Marlenee enjoys being outrageous. It's his shtick, and he lays it on even thicker for the out-of-state media drawn to Montana to chronicle what is arguably one of the best and closest congressional races in the country."

In geographic terms, Williams represented the mountainous and more populous western tier of Montana and Marlenee the flatter, mostly treeless and drier eastern reaches. What few citizens realize is that Montana, throughout its history, has been mostly an urban state based demographically on the fact that towns and cities are where most of the population congregated for work related to various natural resource industries. 

Marlenee saw how, even 30 years ago, the trendlines did not look good for Montana’s high plains in holding population. Many towns had half the number of residents who lived there when the 20th century began. Modern market forces in agriculture were taking a toll that continues to this day.

Dryland and irrigated farming, ranch ownerships being consolidated into bigger operations to achieve a better economy of scale, indebtedness crushing small mom and pops, rural kids deciding they didn’t want to pursue careers in agriculture, and old people dying and not being replaced by younger families—these were all factors. 

Marlenee privately confessed there was no easy political answer. On the one hand, he hated federal subsidies—government providing aid to private enterprise and welfare to urban Americans— and yet he realized that were it not for federal ag programs many food producers would go under. 

Dan DuBray, who cut his teeth early as a TV and radio journalist in Billings, Montana and who was hired to be Marlenee’s spokesperson for his last two terms, had many long chats with the Congressman as they drove to events across the vast district. “Ron would say, ‘As members of Congress we have a credit card that we can put into the machine called US Treasury and we can pull out billions and billions at will, but it is future generations who will be paying the bill.'"

The fact that Marlenee earlier had worked as an auctioneer, often an activity that accompanies farm and ranch foreclosures to pay off debt at the bank, gave him heartache. Ironically, and with Marlenee there was always lots of irony, even though he disdained environmentalists who had set up basecamps in Missoula and Bozeman in the western half of the state, he himself understood the allure of the mountains. 

He and wife Cindy purchased a home site on the back (eastern face) of the Bridger Mountains northeast of Bozeman and it served as a place of solace and retreat. On a couple of occasions I interviewed him there. 

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Montana’s economy overall was in transition as the resource extraction industries of old—timber, mining and coal production—were rapidly modernizing. Technology, automation and creation of new powerful earthmoving equipment reduced the number of human workers needed to do a task. Jobs lost would never return. 

Conveniently, that reality was—and still is— overlooked by politicians. Making a better foil were enviros and environmental laws. They became and continue to be perfect scapegoats cited daily on AM radio airwaves, resonating in ranch kitchens and the cabs of pick-up trucks. 

Marlenee was a die-hard advocate of "multiple use" of public lands even though logging clearcuts, intensive oil and gas drilling, hardrock mining and other uses were seldom done in balance with other things. Sometimes, they ended up ruining or eliminating other kinds of uses, such as recreation, wildlife habitat, hunting, fishing, clean air, water and scenery.  

If someone needed an example of corporate irresponsibility, Pat Williams said he would happily show Marlenee the abuses of the Anaconda Company with the messes it created in Butte, its despoiling of the Clark Fork River and the way laborers were exploited.

Part of Marlenee’s appeal among supporters is that he had proudly amassed one of the lowest ratings among members of Congress in a scorecard kept by the League of Conservation Voters that tracks how members vote on key environmental issues. Williams' wasn't perfect but his record was judged to be four times greener.
In 1988, Marlenee played a key backchannel role in convincing Ronald Reagan, in one of his last acts as President, to pocket veto a Montana wilderness bill, approved by the both the House and Senate, that had been years in the making. Marlenee also went to his bully pulpit and condemned efforts being advanced by federal land management agencies in the Greater Yellowstone region to craft a vision document to bring more cohesion to stewardship of the national parks, forests, BLM lands and wildlife refuges. 

Like Williams’ language pertaining to the Old Faithful Protection Act, my favorite Marlenee utterance came when he described lycra-attired, pro-wilderness, pro-wolf, pro-grizzly, vegetarian-dieted conservationists as “fern feelers and prairie fairies.” 
My favorite Marlenee utterance came when he described lycra-attired, pro-wilderness, pro-wolf, pro-grizzly, vegetarian-dieted conservationists as “fern feelers and prairie fairies.”
Of the plan gaining steam in the last years of the Reagan Administration to reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone, Marlenee said, sneering and shouting: “Sonny, let me make this clear to you. The answer isn’t just no. It’s hell-no. No wolves, no how, no way—not as long as I’m serving in the United States Congress.” 

After glaring at me in the eye for a few seconds, effecting a look of raw fury, he dropped the fiery air of attempted intimation and said, “How’s that. Do you get it? Is that what you wanted?” then offered a pat on the shoulder. “That will give the enviros back in Bozeman something to chew on, don’t you think?” 

Marlenee believed that if wolves reduced the Northern Elk Herd in Yellowstone that outfitters and guides ought to be compensated for any loss of income though he struggled mightily with accepting that the reintroduction of wolves and the recovery of grizzly bears had become main attractions for a robust, multi-million-dollar nature-tourism industry. He didn't have much use for animal predators that ate the animals he liked to hunt. 

He was also initially critical of Pat Williams' bill to stop Church Universal and Triumphant from engaging in geothermal water development near Yellowstone because he believed it impinged on private property rights.  He delighted in reading environmental leaders the riot act and would share stories of his exploits upbraiding them with representatives of industries that supported him. 

“In all those miles Ron traveled across Montana, he had many cups of coffee with people at the local cafe. He knew all of the owners of car dealerships and farm implement stores and bowling alleys by first name. Some politicians have the gift of remembering faces and names along with those of their kids and Ron was one of them. It always amazed me. With what he said publicly, with what he told you and other reporters, he was channeling their concerns and reflecting their sentiments,” DuBray said. “They didn’t like environmentalists because environmentalists represented unwanted change.” 

When Congress hosted hearings on the impacts of unregulated snowmobile use in Yellowstone, and the noise and air pollution that accompanied it, Williams favored rules to protect the park’s integrity. Marlenee pushed back. He said, “I think it’s important to protect a use beloved by moms and dads and their kids with ice-cream smeared across their faces.” 

When Marlenee, a proud trophy hunter who later went on to be director of legislative affairs for Safari Club International, was asked to respond to pushes by animal rights groups to ban rodeo events based on assertions of animal cruelty, he wasn’t daunted: “Tell me why we should be listening to them? They’re just a bunch of little old ladies in tennis shoes.” 

At one hearing of the House Interior Committee chaired by U.S. Rep. Bruce Vento (D) of Minnesota, Marlenee showed up wearing a plaid red Elmer Fudd hunting cap with a fuzzy ball on top and when Vento inquired what it was all about, Marlenee replied: “Because I’m representing the interests of Joe Montana.” Vento rolled his eyes.

On Capitol Hill, DuBray said, Marlenee cultivated a reputation for being “Dr. No,” for voting against spending bills even if they were supported by his own party. He would offer dissenting opinions but most of all he liked disappointing liberals.

In a profile published in The New York Times about the Marlenee-Williams’ race, reporter Adam Clymer wrote this about Marlenee: “He told small businessmen in Great Falls last week that ‘well-intentioned’ measures like the Americans with Disabilities Act, workers' compensation laws, various civil rights statutes and the pending family-leave bill forced employers to mechanize because machines neither complained nor filed lawsuits.” 

When a person in the audience in Great Falls challenged him, and said business should be compelled to do the right thing for employees, Marlenee responded that "if you're working for a jerk who won't give you medical leave to take care of your family, quit your job and find another." 

When DuBray had been a reporter, he enjoyed interviewing Marlenee. What I admired about him, too, if you could call it that, is that he didn’t shy away from fielding questions from the media, ever. He didn’t run and hide, or refuse to partake in live town hall discussions or avoid press scrutiny as his GOP successors in Montana and Wyoming often do today. “He made himself available, for good or ill,” DuBray said. “You couldn’t predict what he would say and as his press secretary, putting him out there could be a high-wire act. Anybody who covered Ron knew you could get him wound up a little bit.” 
“He made himself available, for good or ill. You couldn’t predict what he would say and as his press secretary, putting him out there could be a high-wire act. Anybody who covered Ron knew you could get him wound up a little bit.” —Journalist turned Marlenee spokesman Dan DuBray
Marlenee didn’t memorize and recite talking points handed down by party operatives or read from teleprompters. While hard-headed, sometimes surly and full of virtriole, he actually listened when you, as a reporter, presented facts that undermined his argument. However, his replies were frequently indelicate.

DuBray offers another bit of insight: He says Marlenee, Williams, Simpson and political appointees abided by the principle that if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen; don’t run for elected office or hold down a high-profile political job in government if you aren’t willing to undergo questioning by the media or get up and defend positions before constituents in places where you know there might be a hostile audience. 
Marlenee, Williams, Simpson and political appointees abided by the principle that if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen; don’t run for elected office or hold down a high-profile job in government if you aren’t willing to undergo questioning by the media or get up and defend positions before constituents in places where you know there might be a hostile audience. 
After his tenure with Marlenee, DuBray had several senior-level public affairs posts, including one for Interior Secretary Gale Norton during the George W. Bush Administration. “My name and phone number appeared on the masthead of every press release that went out and if a reporter wanted to talk to the Secretary (of Interior), we would do that,” DuBray said. “It was something I learned in the Marlenee office.” 

(Listen to Aaron Flint's interview below with former U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg who worked for Marlenee in Washington DC for four years as a staffer. Fast forward to the 1:48 mark).

In 1992, the battle royale between Williams and Marlenee happened. It represented in many ways a test of where Montana was and its shifting values. As the eastern part of the state continued to suffer from loss of people, western towns were growing and many newcomers were arriving seeking a better quality of life from where they came from, and they equated it to public lands protection.

It’s a trend that has only continued and it’s why the natural resource extraction industry no longer possesses the same power it used to. Talk of the Second Amendment, however, is more potent than ever. 

A little anecdote DuBray shares is that Marlenee was a devoted gun rights legislator, loyal to the NRA, which also had its own scorecard. The organization without variation always supports the candidate with the highest grade. In 1992, both Marlenee and Williams had identical scores; not only did the NRA not offer an endorsement but it didn’t pump money into support for one candidate over another. That was a major disappointment to Marlenee. 

During the campaign, they exchanged blows but none delivered below the belt based upon recommendations from out-of-state political advisers. After serving eight terms in Congress, the most by any Republican in the state, Marlenee lost in a squeaker to Williams who gleaned 50 percent of the vote. 

A year or so after the election ended and as fate would have it, Williams and Marlenee met on an airplane. Both were headed back home on a Thursday night to Montana from Washington DC. Marlenee then was working as a lobbyist for Safari Club International and Williams, then Montana’s lone “at-large” Congressman, now had twice as much terrain to cover in getting out and interacting with constituents. He represented the largest Congressional district, by land mass at 147,046 square miles, outside of Alaska.

Marlenee carried a small satchel on the plane. In the old days he would have had a huge stack of documents to read and letters to constituents to review and hand sign with a personal note while making long flights back and forth. He looked at Williams who was toting a familiar gigantic load and he noticed Williams had big bags under his eyes. Williams during the coming weekend would spend grueling 14-hour days heading from town to town and then catch a late flight back Sunday to DC to attend hearings and votes. 

The two of them didn’t have to say a word. Marlenee understood the weight of the job. He nodded, not holding any resentment or envy, but rather empathy and sympathy for his old foe. Williams had won fair and square and Marlenee admired him for wanting to serve the good people of Montana, but Marlenee, who would enjoy long stints back at his place in the Bridger Mountains, got to enjoy actually living in Montana. He considered himself a victor. 

Besides his electoral defeat by Williams, there was something else he didn’t regret. He didn’t mind living in a place that had public lands and its natural beauty still intact, healthy game herds and a sense of wildness. He would acknowledge that he didn’t regret his votes to weaken some environmental laws that failed to succeed. 

Occasionally, I would run into Marlenee in subsequent years, usually at the Bozeman airport. Once, we shared seats next to each other as I flew into Reno, Nevada to cover a story at the Safari Club International convention. He still had that twinkle in his eyes and a wicked fondness for sparring. Later in his years, he became a supporter of the Tea Party and turned more anti-government in his sentiments. What he really adored was jousting for the pure sport of it. 

In the end he agreed with Williams’ assessment of what was–and still is—at stake in the state shortly before Williams retired in 1997 after serving nine terms and the last Treasure State Democrat to hold the House seat: “Montana," Williams said, "is the brow of America’s last hill. Montana is what America started out to be. Now we face the challenge of figuring out how to manage the economy with the environment in a way that secures jobs.” 

When the results of the 2020 US Census come in, some demographers say Montana may regain a second House seat. Will it deepen the old east-west, mountains vs. prairie, urban vs. rural dynamic in the state? Will it further inflame tribal ideological divisions or blur them? No doubt Mr. Marlenee would've had a strong opinion.

Former Montana Congressman Ron Charles Marlenee: August 8, 1935-April 26, 2020.
Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal,  is an American author and journalist proudly trained in the old school tradition. He's been a journalist for 35 years and writes for publications ranging from National Geographic to The Guardian. He is author of several books on topics ranging from scientific whistleblowers to Ted Turner and the story of Jackson Hole grizzly mother 399, the most famous bear in the world which features photographs by Thomas Mangelsen.  For more on Wilkinson's career, click here. (Photo by David J Swift).
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