Montana is full.


I saw the bumper sticker and the headline on the same day.

The newspaper read: Montana’s population estimated to pass 1 million.

The bumper sticker read: Montana is full. Go home.

The Census Bureau says Montana has grown 10 percent over the past decade, and would soon break 1 million people. Barely. How can a state spanning 150,000 square miles, the fourth largest in the union, seem full with “only” a million people? Well, some days it does.

Sure looks full. Image of full moon in the Hi-Line region courtesy Flickr user Nomadic Lass.

You won’t see the bumper sticker on the Governor’s Suburban. He was ebullient at the idea of Montana breaking the million-soul mark. Booster-in-Chief Brian Schweitzer said, "People from all over the world recognize that Montana is the best place to start and grow a small business, raise a family and build a community."

Well, maybe. But remember, the winters are brutal here. Brutal. Bugs in the summer? You can’t go outside without packing a pint of plasma. Wolves have eaten all the deer and elk, too, and will go after your toddler next.

 Maybe I need to keep this in perspective. Japan is almost exactly the same size as Montana and has 127 times more people. Still, mass urbanization is not the kind of future I look forward to.

Is Montana growing?  Depends where you look. Over the past couple decades, the mountainous western part of the state – the land of national parks and national forests, rugged peaks and cold rivers and lakes – has been attracting both immigrants from out of state and those migrating from other parts of the Treasure State. Populations are generally growing on Indian reservations, as well. The central part of the state – for example communities around Great Falls and Helena – have roughly held steady. The eastern part of the state, the Big Open between Malta and Miles City, is bleeding youth. A long-anticipated energy boom might change that temporarily but the long-term trend is clear.

The rub is that the things that make Montana great – and attractive to businesses that Gov. Schweitzer is so eager to attract – are fragile. Open space. Sparkling clean lakes. Abundant wildlife. Uncrowded hiking trails and fishing streams. Towns where the people say please and thank you and motorists stop to let you cross the street.

We’ve all seen other communities eat themselves alive as they pursue a greasy buck and growth for sake of growth. The trick is, how does Montana grow in ways that maintain the very traits that make it special?

I've spent plenty of time in places where folks follow the traffic reports like we track weather reports. In 20 years  in Montana, I’ve never uttered the excuse “Sorry, I was stuck in traffic.”

Growth? I suppose. Jobs? Absolutely. But remember: Montanans like Montana the way it is. The changing seasons are about the only change people embrace around here.

Ben Long struggles to pull up the drawbridge leading to Kalispell, Mont., where he is senior program director for Resource Media.

Image of Miles City, Montana courtesy Flickr user Chuck Johnson.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

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