Montana's wide open spaces

A propos of my recent post on Montana's vague secession threats over gun control, I see that they don't like the new drivers license mandate much either:

The guide from my snowmobile tour in Yellowstone told me that at the point where the Rocky Mountains give way to the plains, somewhere around Billings, one can see all the way to Minneapolis—840 miles away—on a clear day. I wasn’t quite sure I believed that, but the scenery—and its emptiness—require no overstatement.

I saw more grazing cows than people in the vast flats, and those humans I did see were in a small number of tiny towns abutting the road. The towns usually consisted of little more than a post office, a general store, a saloon and, of course, a video-poker casino. People live out there to be autonomous, perhaps even alone.

Local officials love to invoke Montana’s immensity when blasting federal policies that aim to impose uniform standards on America’s states. A few days ago, Brian Schweitzer, Montana’s governor, did just that in an interview with me, during which he railed against the REAL ID Act, a federal law requiring every state to collect, verify and store basic data on its citizens when they apply for drivers’ licenses or identification cards.

Under the law, drivers’ licenses, which individual states issue, must also contain certain identifying information and employ common technological protocols. If states refuse to comply—as Montana’s legislature has already done—then federal officials, such as airport security staff, will not accept the non-compliant IDs after 2011.

These federal standards, Mr Schweitzer insisted, will force Montanans to drive for hours to the nearest city in order to get their licenses. Now, the state often issues drivers’ licenses from rooms in remote libraries or courthouses that might be open a couple of hours a month. Mr Schweitzer argued it would be uneconomical to outfit a small room with the sort of on-site security and equipment necessary to comply with the law in order to serve a handful of locals 12 days a year.

Mr Schweitzer also fretted about the movement towards a national identification card, fuming that Americans now need “walking-around papers” that will allow the government to “track you the rest of your life”. He compared what he saw as the law’s abridging of personal freedom to the 1918 Sedition Act, which outlawed anti-government speech. And he worried that so much personal data would be available to authorities in linked databases across the country, easily searchable and open to abuse.

I spent two summers on a ranch outside Cody, Wyoming, which is a little bit south of the Montana border. We were about thirty or forty miles outside of town--which was a two and a half hour drive on Wyoming's twisty, and more than occasionally unpaved, mountain roads. Looking at how far apart the major population centers are, this seems like a pretty major problem for both states.