Stand in the place where you live

  Dear HCN,

Dan Flores' essay on ranchettes in Montana's Bitterroot Valley interested me, since I am a fellow Bitterrooter who makes a living working for the very ranchetteers he discussed (HCN, 5/10/99). I do tree planting, ecological restoration and native landscaping for them, and so I've done much brainstorming on what makes a "good ranchette."

Dan is right that the Bitterroot Valley still has a relatively small population for its size, with approximately one person for every two acres (an interesting statistic when talking about subdivisions). We drift and pool in the bottomlands like the ever-increasing smog in the wintertime, amorphous and yet with our secret, singular intents. We bump into each other and exchange the names of mutual friends - a functioning community, in other words.

I've only lived in western Montana for 20 years or so, but all of us who've been here that long or longer can remember a time when land here was being subdivided and sold to people who were homesteading those parcels much as Dan says he's doing. They were building modest houses, often earth-bermed, putting in a garden and a root cellar, composting food waste, "getting off the grid" with solar panels or kerosene lamps, putting up an outhouse out back and calling it home-sweet-home for $10,000.

The term "ranchette" was something you occasionally came across in real estate pamphlets; it gave you a queasy feeling of foreboding but did not apply. That was when land was going for anywhere between $500 and $1,500 per acre, and oftentimes it was economic necessity that drove decisions in favor of outhouses over drain or leach fields. Bitterroot wages have always been low, and that hasn't changed.

The current reality is the 3,000- to 4,000-square-foot home, built smack-dab on the most prominent ridge on parcels that cost as much as gold mines used to, owned by folks not even vaguely interested in reading by kerosene lamp. "Ranchette" not only applies but is now virtually synonymous with "subdivision" as well.

I do agree that the human equation is a legitimate ecological concern. But while the land speaks to me all the time, it's getting harder and harder to hear through the cacophony of incessantly barking dogs, and if the human equation in nature is going to be truly honored, it is going to be done by something called "planning," which is anathema to "ranchette" developers. In this unsustainable atmosphere of sacred private-property rights, the only planning tool we currently have in Ravalli County is the septic permit. The homesteader with the outhouse is being priced out by the same forces that are giving the fish in the Bitterroot River sorer and sorer lips from being caught and released, used and abused, too many times.

The crux of the subdivision issue to me, as a restorationist and as a human animal deeply rooted in American individualism, is the very idea of Jeffersonian democracy that Dan evokes in defense of the ranchette. But I think Jefferson was envisioning a population of small landowners who were planning to stay on the land, to live and learn with it, and to pass it on to their kids.

Jefferson couldn't have foreseen the degree of mobility we now enjoy, and which I believe is our biggest obstacle for groundedness to the land today. It's the kind of thing I focus on, because I see so much of it: the many well-intentioned people who try to restore the ecology of their postage-stamp parcels of land and then move on, only to have their efforts subverted by the new owner who has a very different set of priorities.

That's why, from a strictly restorationist's point of view, it is always preferable to deal with one large landowner rather than lots of little ones, even if that land has been hammered by cows. A hammered sagebrush habitat is, sadly, better than a patchwork of lawns irrigated by 300-foot-deep wells. And from a human point of view, the incessantly barking dogs are at least a few acres further away.

So I think Dan dismisses too quickly the "real Californians' who don't end up staying: They are the essence of this particular land-use issue. We are all stereotypical Californians if we leave our little parcels to the forces of the "free market," which are always corrosive to environmental integrity. Ranchettes aren't going away anytime soon, and we need to come to sustainable terms with them. But the only way I can see to be a good ranchetteer in these interesting times is to connect to your little piece of land for good, either by staying with it for the long haul (which a lot of ranchers are still trying to do, by the way) or by placing environmental covenants on it and then hooking it to an organization, such as the Bitterroot Land Trust, that can enforce restrictions when inevitable attempts at circumventing them occur down the road when you're long gone.

This forfeits some of your perceived Jeffersonian ideals of "doing what you damn well please" with your own land, but unless you're willing to give something substantial of yourself to the land, then in the long run, 25 acres is way too small a parcel to preserve any wildness at all.

Bill LaCroix

Hamilton, Montana

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