My beautiful ranchette

  • Watercolor of a home against the mountains

    Diane Sylvain
  • Greater Yellowstone Report, High Cost of Rural Sprawl

  • Susan Ewing


My name is Susan; I live on a ranchette. In the growth-pained West, this is as serious a confession as alcoholism or cruelty to animals. A year and a half ago, I picked up my local newspaper in Bozeman, Mont., and there under the headline TRACKING SPRAWL was an aerial photo of the Bridger Mountain foothills that included my place. This wasn't the first time my neighbors and I saw our houses as illustrations of all that is ugly about building patterns in the rural West. We'd earlier made the cover of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition's newsletter.

I studied the newspaper as I walked back from the paper box to my quiet and cozy house feeling, as I frequently do, conflicted. Yes, a residence in town might be more environmentally correct than living on these 20 acres, although growth in Bozeman often takes place on irreplaceable agricultural land. But my craving for space, the outdoors, the company of wildlife, and the chance to settle directly into the ecosystem (of which I am a part) is stronger. I love my place with a sense of familial intimacy, and feel toward it more a relationship than ownership.

Though my partner and I acknowledge we have disrupted wildlife patterns, he and I have nevertheless tried to amend our presence. We don't let our dogs run loose; we conserve water, limit trips to town, and don't have a cat. I know where mushrooms grow, where flickers nest, and where grouse drum. I feel whole and hopeful and incredibly blessed watching mule deer rest near the house. Mountain cottontails lounge under the car, and chickadees are a constant, cheerful presence.

I also agree that sprawl is a serious concern. I believe in responsible occupancy of this beautiful land and support organizations such as the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. I favor planned and managed growth. The concept of clustering houses when feasible to leave more open space is good; and I strongly endorse strict covenants regarding water use and the control of pets, weeds and erosion.

But in the final analysis, I believe that sprawl is the deeply troubling symptom of a much larger problem: too many people. Planned and managed growth needs to be applied to human populations too, not just housing developments. Because there are now so many of us, we are being advised to remove ourselves from the environment in order to protect it; to visit the land rather than live with it. This breaks my heart.

I rejected that advice but am at least trying to live lightly on the land, which even I find a somewhat ridiculous phrase. How light can a house, two people and three dogs be? Still, while I have perhaps not made the best ecological choice, this is where I belong. This is where I feel at home and where my soul is at rest, even in all its ambivalence. Perhaps I can trade the 2.5 children I didn't have, plus my generous annual contribution to Planned Parenthood, for the promise that the next illustration of sprawl in the press leaves out my beautiful ranchette.

Susan Ewing lives outside Bozeman, Montana. She is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a High Country News project that distributes columns regularly to 40 newspapers throughout the West.

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