Hello? Montana? Is That You?

THE place: western Montana, Big Sky country with burly green mountains named Sliderock, Scapegoat, Bull, Sapphire, and Hogback. Lots of Christmas trees there. Really low state taxes. Clean air that pings like a bell. Rivers to canoe and raft. Some lovely valleys, too, with small towns such as Warm Springs, Deer Lodge, Helena, and Wisdom. It's country with natural beauty to sigh over if it's not home to you, and with a state population of around 800,000 it's not home to a lot of people.

But if it is home, a Montanan knows the worth of such a place to the heart and mind. Eastern Montana is nice too, low hills and grassy. Same clean air there pings like a bell, too.

The Day: Make it exactly Aug. 2, last month, a Wednesday. The state bird, the Western meadowlark, is out and flying around with a flutelike whistle and flash of yellow on its breast. People and work are under way. It's a hot day, very humid and thick like a damp sock. And when Montanans look around, should they believe what they can't see? Yes, they should.

Something is wrong.

The Problem: Smoke from forest fires in Idaho has slowly, oppressively drifted to the northeast into Montana valleys. There, aided and abetted by unusually stagnant and still air, there is no clean air to ping. Something else is there. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls of all ages, smog (yes, smog) has come to Montana on a Wednesday.

The Verification: The National Weather Service issues a special advisory to tell Montanans that the hideously opaque grayness around them has cut visibility to less than six miles in Helena, for instance. They can't see what they love. To Montanans, used to seeing an all-blue sky for possibly a hundred miles in all directions, this could be the equivalent of an environmental daymare. The advisory also says that what Montana is experiencing is ``a weather phenomenon usually seen in the industrial eastern United States.''

The Ramifications: In an industrial eastern US newspaper the small headline reads, ``Rare Smog Blanket Puzzles Montanans.''

Of course it isn't the industrial-strength smog of the East or the great fetid smog of Los Angeles, both produced by internal combustion engines and too many firepot factories making chemicals. This is smoke smog, no less detestable or unlovely, but I don't think it puzzles Montanans. They know what they have and what they don't want. Forest fires are not that uncommon in the West. But a weather advisory proclaiming smog in Montana on a Wednesday is uncommon.

The Inference: Let it not become common. Montana is not yet consummately threatened by acid rain, or real smog, or emissions, or the urban perils that gather in the industrialized East and try to echo in the Northwest.

Clean air, despite a Wednesday in August, is still there to ping. Like a bell.

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