In Montana: The view from the ranchette

  • Subdivision development in Montana's Gallatin Valley

    Dennis Glick photo
  • Stealth subdivision in desert near Tucson, Ariz.

    Dale Turner, Sky Island Alliance
  • Dan Flores


Montana has its own special pathologies. But the one it shares most visibly with the Mountain West in general features a peculiar symptom - furtive glances at the horizon with the expectation of seeing silhouetted hordes there, as in a Western movie, except that these hordes are driving Land Rovers and eating sushi.

There's a certainty in Montana that not only is this happening, but that everything connected with it - with growth - is the death rattle in Montana's throat. We know it's going to happen because we've already seen it elsewhere.

How many times a day do Montanans hear, often from Coloradans, that "Montana is Colorado 15 years ago'? And factoids like this one keep popping up: In a USA Today poll in 1998, 43 percent of Baby Boomers allowed as how they have fond hopes of retiring to the Rocky Mountain West.

Growth in the West is personal for all of us, which means it may not register for you the same as it does for me. I'm a card-carrying member of the horde. Four years ago I became a growth statistic myself.

I moved to what then seemed (still does) a stunningly beautiful and rather thinly settled Bitterroot Valley, home to Montana's fastest-growing county with a whopping 22.8 percent population increase between 1994 and 1998 (HCN, 1/18/99). To add a little perspective, the Bitterroot Valley comprises close to 800 square miles, and despite all that growth has barely 30,000 people. Yet there's constant official talk in Montana of "giving up on the Bitterroot" and "letting the Californians have it."

Valleys like the Bitterroot exaggerate Montana's overall growth, which statewide has risen from just under 700,000 in 1970 to about 900,000 three decades later.

Not only is the increase packing into three or four Western valleys, there's also the notoriety that Hollywood and celebrity hobby ranchers get you. A friend of mine quipped a couple of years ago that any time now he expected the Pope to opt for a Montana getaway. Pretty good near-miss. According to a story in the state media late last year, it's actually the Dalai Lama who's sent operatives to check out a Montana ranch - and where else but the Bitterroot.

The real truth is that numbers are only a part of the equation when it comes to place-based quality of life. As a newcomer myself, also a historian, also a specimen of the most favoritest recent whipping boy of Western growth - a ranchette inhabitant - I feel some obligation to react to growth and "sprawl" from a historical context. What we're confronting is not a new problem in the Mountain West. It's also not without some delicious ironies.

Sometime read A.B. Guthrie, Jr.'s, observations of his Montana of a half-century ago. A constant harping for Guthrie, originally a Midwesterner, was his "outlanders" and "invaders" theme, and it goes all the way back to The Big Sky.

"It's all sp'iled, I reckon, Dick. The whole caboodle." That's Boone Caudill speaking at the end of The Big Sky, the words describing the Montana of 150 years ago. And this is a conversation between Higgins and Dick Summers in The Way West: "I got it in my head you're fightin" shy of people." Summers replies: "They spoil things ... like ways of living."

Here was Guthrie's Montana, in a nutshell: The virgin land of the fur trappers had been partly done in by the trappers themselves, then finished off by Oregon pioneers, whose own world in turn had been spoiled by miners and cattlemen, and theirs screwed by dryland farmers and, eventually, environmentalists.

Now, Guthrie's Montana was being Californicated by amenity-migrant "outsiders ... jammed elbow-to-elbow in their concrete canyons ... (who) look on us covetously."

"It must have occurred to you that man is a parasite," he told an audience a quarter-century ago.

What is it about Montana that makes us so willing to embrace the hypocritical? Bud Guthrie, even Charlie Russell - they were all from somewhere else, we ought to have reminded them. The same is true of a ton of other Montana notables (Bill Kittredge, Thomas McGuane, Rick Bass, Annick Smith, David Quammen, to list a few we've all heard of), whose voices a closed door would have turned away.

It's the very hypocrisy John Wright evokes in the story in his recent book, Montana Ghost Dance, of the drunk (Wright calls him "Sack Man') who staggered out of a Butte bar screaming at him to "Git out! Git out! Let Montana be Montana!" When the writer, who grew up in Maine but who has spent most of his adult life in Montana, confronted Sack Man about where he was from, the guy muttered, "Well, Chicago, but that don't mean shit. Git out!'

Here's another choice irony. The one issue that environmentalists and rural folks in the Mountain West have been able to agree on is opposition to subdivision. For the moment, assume that the apparent consensus on subdivision is true - that the resulting "rural sprawl" threatens wildlife with dogs and cats, pollutes pristine night skies with vapor lamps, puts more cars on the roads, produces more road-killed animals, sets loose exotic plants, puts pressure on public lands, gets us more clashes with black bears and cougars. Pretty devastating litany, even if you ignore (if you'll allow me some cynicism) that the sentiments fueling this may not be entirely noble, running to a Puritanical loathing of humans (who always blight nature) by too many of my fellow environmentalists, to naked class resentment and envy by too many of my rural neighbors.

But has it occurred to anyone that the rural open space we're trying to freeze is actually the creation of an agro-capitalist pattern of land consolidation - one that subverted the original democratic hopes for the Mountain West?

When John Wesley Powell and Gifford Pinchot and Francis Newlands were establishing the ownership structure of Mountain West society a century ago, they deliberately left the valley floors open to homesteading under laws that were designed to stitch small, democratic farms across valleys like the Bitterroot.

The pattern of large private land ownership we now seek to preserve in Mountain West valleys is a 20th-century capitalist consolidation phenomenon - ever larger farms and ranches - that rebukes the original Jeffersonian idea. Ironic.

Here's another irony: Because we're all so incorporated into the global market, there is no real evidence that larger human populations necessarily put more pressure on regional resources.

Consider the indicators of environmental health in Montana 100 years ago, when the state population was less than half what it is now. It only required a population of a quarter-million to de-buffalo the plains, erase the wolf, push grizzly bears into two small disconnected pockets, devastate rivers like the Clark Fork with pollution we still can't clean up, and get knapweed started on its astoundingly successful campaign to simplify the state floristically, to me a far scarier wildlife issue than subdivision.

Today, with a much larger human population, we have wolves howling in the mountains again and grizzlies so recovered in the Greater Yellowstone Area (the 25-county area that features the most rapid population growth in the entire West) that they're being considered for de-listing. And as one measure of environmental health, the number of big animals taken by hunters since 1975 - when there were almost 200,000 fewer of us here - has grown by 97 percent for pronghorns, 78 percent for deer, 50 percent for elk, 26 percent for moose, 153 percent for bighorn sheep.

Here's one more irony that ought to give Montanans pause in our reflexive, one-finger salutes at California license plates. Every study of migration in Montana has now made clear that some 40 percent of the newcomers to the Western valleys are other Montanans relocating from the dwindling plains counties. What's more: A high percentage of new arrivals from other states are former Montanans who abandoned their homes for lucrative West Coast military jobs half a century ago. Now they're coming home.

As for the real Californians, many are those whose prior experience with Montana was seeing A River Runs Through It or Legends of the Fall, and they've largely ended up not staying, or staying only seasonally. The real-life Montana out the door is still too cold, too snowy, too cloudy, too weirdly redneck for lots of people.

We all know that in-migration is much influenced by perception. At the University of Montana, our non-resident enrollment has boomed with every new movie; the year following the Unabomber and the Freemen it dropped by 400 students. No one is sure what to do with this information.

I now want to take Ole Beelzebub by the horns and actually say a word or two in defense of the much-despised ranchette.

I've lived on one, in either Texas or Montana, for 15 years now; I'll be the first to admit that too many people develop them with utter thoughtlessness. On the other hand, some environmentalists think that so insidious is the human in nature that America would be better off if our entire population just consolidated in cities, or even on the two coasts, as Western historian Roderick Nash has suggested.

American history, though, would have sacrificed a lot if it had denied everyone who wasn't engaged in market agriculture the opportunity to live in the country.

Do we wish we'd had no Thoreau at Walden Pond? No Susan Fenimore Cooper's book, Rural Hours? No need for Leopold's ranchette-derived biocentric land ethic from A Sand County Almanac? No losses if we'd denied Georgia O'Keeffe the right to live on her seven acres at the foot of the Ghost Ranch cliffs? No need for Gary Snyder's reflections from the Sierra foothills, or Wallace Stegner's "Sense of Place" essay, written about his little place in the Palo Alto Hills? No value from Bud Guthrie getting "a bit of everlasting" looking at Ear Mountain and the Rocky Mountain Front out the window of his rancheria?

Nash once wrote, in Wilderness and the American Mind, that country life was the worst option of all, lacking both computers and elk. Professor Nash, come for a visit. But don't expect the opulence everyone seems to imagine when they think ranchette. My own house in the Bitterroot is a 700 square-foot adobe (it'll actually sleep five) that I built myself; that's what lots of us Western ranchetteers do.

Its power comes from an array of solar panels; it composts its waste so has no septic field, and it clusters my activities into about two acres of my 25 - and those two are neither on a ridge proclaiming my conspicuous consumption, nor athwart the wildlife trails that connect this piece of ground to the foothills around it. My premise? Twenty-five acres is not too small a parcel to preserve some wildness.

Come for a visit, Professor Nash. You can help me do restoration burns to recover the fescue prairie that got trashed when this acreage was part of one of those big, working ranches everyone wants to preserve.

No elk? You can watch them from the yard, maybe even fill your mule deer tag, as I did this fall, from the kitchen window. Then, such is homesteading technology, via satellite you can e-mail or phone the news back to Santa Barbara.

Is this "a good ranchette'? I don't know if such a beast exists. But ranchettes aren't going away anytime soon, so the idea of a good ranchette is worthy of some real brainstorming effort. Besides, as part of the native fauna myself, I'm convinced I have a place in nature so long as I don't swing my arms too selfishly.

History doesn't travel well in fast-forward mode, but I'll venture two predictions. In the ebb-flow pattern of most of the 20th century, the Mountain West is going to continue to grow in the 21st. And the Thoreau instinct will remain. Confronting our desire to live in the West, we ought to remember the big picture, and be thoughtful.

Dan Flores holds the Hammond Chair in Western History at the University of Montana, Missoula. He lives on a ranchette against the Sapphire Range in the Bitterroot Valley. His next two books, Horizontal Yellow and The Natural West, will be released in autumn 1999 and spring 2000.

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