Bitter farewell: A Montana valley succumbs to growth fever

  • Bitterroot Valley in Montana

    Diane Sylvain
  • A reflection of the Bitterroots

    Yukari Usuda
  • In the Bitterroot Valley, south of Missoula

    Yukari Usuda photo
  • John Wright


We are losing the Bitterroot. The first place settled in Montana may be the first to go. The words stick in the throat. They have the growl of negativity, the un-American taste of failure.

What can we do with such an impossible fact? On days when fresh snow sashes the high granite ridges, we ignore it. On float-trip escapes across stunning, clear water, on dayhike reunions, we pretend things remain as they were, in a kind of ghost dance sweeping across the Bitterroot and the rest of the Rockies. But if the ghost dance is back, this time it's white people dancing. They dream we can chase away "newcomers" by socking them with cold weather and hostility. But the charade collapses from the simplest of acts: from a retelling of all that has happened in this place. Faith in wrong things leaves harsh evidence.

Meriwether Lewis gave the valley, river and range the same name - the Bitterroot, for the small pink-flowered plant that grows on windswept prairie hillsides. Its bulbs were dug up by the Salish people, who lived in the broad valley. The bulb's soft inner tissue was made into soup and was mashed into meal. The Bitterroot may be bitter but it has sustained life.

It wasn't until 1841 that Montana was settled by Jesuit priests - the "black robes" - sent from St. Louis to grow potatoes and save souls. Fathers DeSmet and Ravalli carted plows and Bibles into this far valley on the border of what was then called Louisiana, establishing a mission at the site of present day Stevensville as Montana's first "town." The Salish showed surprising tolerance, and many Indians even converted to a veneer of Catholicism. But tough weather, isolation and lack of funds soon forced the priests to sell the mission to traders and leave.

In 1854, the Jesuits came back, and instead of reacquiring the old mission, they urged the Salish to trek north to a new church built at the base of the Mission Mountains in St. Ignatius. Most of the Indian people refused to leave what they called "the Salish land," just as white settlers began to covet the valleys' abundant river and creek water for irrigation and vast forests of tall trees. In 1855, the federal government established the Flathead Reservation centered at St. Ignatius, yet some of the Salish people still stayed behind.

By 1871, white settlers from Missouri, Georgia and the Carolinas were screaming for the complete removal of the Salish. General James A. Garfield (who would later be president) ordered the Salish to leave, and worn down, Indian leaders signed something called the "Garfield Agreement," which was little more than an acknowledgment of powerlessness, and most trudged north to St. Ignatius.

But Charlot, First Chief of the Salish, never signed the agreement, and historians now acknowledge his mark was forged. Charlot and 360 of his band defied the army and stayed in the Bitterroot, determined to get their land back. Even as whites streamed into the valley to farm too-small 160-acre homestead plots, Charlot led a delegation to Washington in 1884, to again argue for a return of the land. Some Indians accepted enticements to leave, such as a horse and two cows; Charlot and 342 others decided to stay in the Bitterroot and endure its hardships.

Life quickly became unbearable for Charlot's band. There was real hunger. Many grew lonely for friends and families. Finally, in 1891, Charlot and what remained of the Bitterroot Salish rode north on horseback, under armed guard, toward the Flathead Reservation. On the way, Charlot had a medicine man place a curse on the Bitterroot Valley.

Not long after, settlers reported widespread outbreaks of a strange and usually fatal fever. By 1901, over 200 cases were recorded each year, and the mortality rate was 80-90 percent.

Locals called the plague by many names: "black fever," "black measles," "spotted fever" and "blue disease." The fever would spike to 107 degrees, then plummet, sending the body into icy shivers. A red mottled rash rose on the body which darkened to a blue the color of decay.

The logged-over west side of the valley had far more deaths than the open prairies to the east, yet it wasn't until 1907 that a researcher named Howard Rickens linked all this to ticks and the dying was given a name - Rocky Mountain spotted fever. The Bitterroot was known as the world center of the disease.

A group of Chicago speculators figured the future of the valley lay on the tick-safe Eastern benches. They financed the construction of the "Big Ditch," a 60-mile-long irrigation canal from Lake Como in the south end of the Bitterroot Valley to Florence in the north. Tomorrow's opportunities would come from land subdivision and the growing of red, crisp McIntosh apples. Apple trees were planted in broad swaths along east-side terraces. By 1910, the Big Ditch was completed as far north as Stevensville, where 14,000 acres were split into 10-acre lots and sold to greenhorn out-of-staters. Huge expanses of the former Salish Land had been bought by the Bitterroot Valley Irrigation Company for $2.50-$15 per acre and resold as "apple orchard tracts" at $400-$1,000 per acre. The company quickly began to get rich.

The fruit orchards of the Bitterroot were hyped as the certain path to shining health and gently earned fortune. "Land set aside in fruit orchards soon doubles in price," State of Montana literature bragged. "Irrigation makes the crop as certain as the rotation of the Earth. The industrious horticulturist can work for a few years to take care of the orchard until it produces fruit, and then sit in the shade while the fruit grows and his money comes in ... (this) is proof that the old times have passed away. The apples can never be produced in quantities to glut the market." The Bitterroot was being promoted as the "Garden Spot of Montana," and the "Home of the McIntosh Apple." Architect Frank Lloyd Wright was hired by the fruit speculators to design the Bitter Root Inn near Stevensville.

Who was the sought-for sucker? Not the last century's settlers - the "honyockers, scissorbills and nesters" of the eastern Montana wheat bonanza. Marketing was aimed at wealthy, disaffected urbanites from Boston and San Francisco seeking a rural escape. Potential investors were given free rail passage to Missoula. A chauffeured car would then roll them past Charlot's old camp and on to the Bitter Root Inn. Lodgings and the use of a golf course were free. So were the tender steaks garnished with local produce and washed down with French wine. Once you signed on the dotted line of a real estate contract, you were driven to your remote patch of sagebrush and dropped off to sober up.

Over 100,000 acres were subdivided in this way.

By 1918, the boom-and-gloom tradition of the West had intervened. The Big Ditch Company went bankrupt and its officials fled back to Chicago. Apples were grown, but high transport costs rendered the Bitterroot unable to compete with Washington state orchards in Yakima and Wenatchee. Most of the apple boomers busted, abandoned their trees to dessication, and slunk back to the cities. A few stuck it out and are now revered as "native Bitterrooters." The eviction of Charlot and the orcharding craze set the tone for the valley.

Subdivision booms of our time - 1960s, '70s and '90s - aren't much different. "Why come to Montana?" state literature asks. "Many large ranches have become too valuable to be used as pasture and have been divided into small tracts and sold." This was written in 1909; it could have been written in 1999. It is the timeless message of boomerism in the West, the mercantile expression of Manifest Destiny. During each of the Bitterroot land booms there has been a nominal response to "address' or "plan" growth: weak subdivision laws riddled with exemptions, half-meant and unimplemented comprehensive plans, honest but insufficient land-trust efforts.

Nothing has worked. The population of Ravalli County - the political unit of the Bitterroot Valley - has risen from 15,000 in 1970 to 35,000 today, a 3.5 percent annual growth rate. Even seemingly undeveloped portions of the valley are already subdivided into small parcels - apple tracts, 20 acres, splits of 20s down to fives. More of these lines are made visible each day as houses spring up in old Hereford meadows and balsamroot prairies. Fence lines, roadways, and knapweed invasions are etched and repeated in this process of loss.

The Salish Land is now a smurge of mostly unplanned rural subdivisions, trailer parks and businesses. New electrical hookups are doubling every 10 years. Despite the current discussions of "growth management," such a thing is Stalinism to many Bitterrooters.

As a result, "planning" still focuses on how land will be developed, not whether it should be. Ravailli County Planner Tim Schweke puts it plainly - "We're definitely behind the eight ball."

Highway 93 will soon be remade as a four-lane or more interstate highway through a nearly continuous swath of development at the valley's heart (see sidebar). The planner's mantra is reprised - "growth follows infrastructure." This new highway with no speed limit will shorten the commute to Missoula and thrust development ever deeper into the valley each year.

All this makes me think of Charlot. Since 1967, there has been a dramatic fall-off in the number of tick fever cases in the valley. It was in that year - probably a coincidence - the federal government finally paid the Salish $4 million for the theft of the Bitterroot. Still, turmoil remains a defining trait of land and life here. It is no longer bugs but an array of other lifeforms keeping the Bitterroot dangerous these days.

Militant Constitutionalists threaten the life of judges, the Forest Service clear-cuts steep slopes that then slide into bull trout habitats, trustifarians plan palaces and working stiffs build them, realtors pick off ranches as they weaken and fall.

Anyone who saw this place in the 1960s, with a population unchanged since the bust of the apple boom, can't help but ache. In a mere 30 years of thoughtless transformation, elk range and forests, solitude and quietness, safety and optimism have withered. Agriculture is almost all gone; hobby ranches only make the absence more present. Even the thing with no other name but spirit is dissipating. These losses allow us to feel one faint atom of what Charlot felt. Today, some of us drive through the Bitterroot and mourn; speaking the changes, listing the losses, writing obituaries from the driver's side.

I used to be an optimist. For a quarter of a century, I have done planning and conservation easement work all over the West; how can I - one of the positive people, someone who always urges people never to give up - conclude that we are losing the Bitterroot?

People I know and respect will say I am being counterproductive. There will be hurt feelings. But it seems clear that even with our best intentions, the most upbeat outcome for the valley is a holding action. Not that good things haven't happened here: over 20,000 acres are protected by conservation easements; Dave Odell and Trout Unlimited succeeded in reserving water for the river; thank God for the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness. In the coming years, more land trust projects (and the new Bitterroot Land Trust) will succeed in saving portions of what remains. This valley will never become a cityscape bereft of beauty and connection to the wild world, and those arriving in the 1990s still see the valley as untouched compared to Seattle or La Jolla or Los Angeles. There is danger in their ignorance.

I remember this most in the bracing wind of the Big Hole and Piceance, on green-up days along the Lemhi and Sweetwater, in the strong sun of the Toquima and Sevier. In the vulnerable places thus far retained not by intention but by the world's temporary disinterest. Our daily lives show us there are fewer of these each year. We have more facts and less faith.

I still must believe one thing - we can save places, but only if we care enough and make a commitment to conservation easements, land trusts, land trades and patient but true planning. Drive through the Bitterroot with open eyes, through the place we stole and squandered. In the West it is always best to remember our geography.

John Wright is the author of Montana Ghost Dance: Essays on Land and Life (University of Texas Press, 1998). He is a professor of geography at New Mexico State University.

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