Waxing and waning in the Modern West

  • Paul Larmer

 

The sky still held plenty of light at 9:15 p.m., as I pulled off Interstate 90 and headed north on Montana State Highway 89. My destination was a Motel 6, 55 miles away, where two dozen high school teachers were holed up, in between sessions of a weeklong summer field program sponsored by the Montana Heritage Project. Their mission was to learn about the history, environment and culture of central Montana, and to find ways to engage their students to do the same.

As I raced alone through rolling wheat country, chasing a black thunderstorm over the Little Belt Mountains, it occurred to me that Montana’s far-flung human settlements exhibit a uniquely Western form of schizophrenia. Behind me lay the bustling small cities of Bozeman and Helena and their vibrant business districts and sprawling subdivisions. Ahead lay the torpid towns of White Sulphur Springs and Harlowtown, with their beat-up downtowns surrounded by vast expanses of wheat and short-grass prairie. Behind me, the West was thriving; up ahead, it seemed to be dying.

The teachers I met the next morning came from towns on both sides of the waxing and waning West. Some hailed from Whitefish and Big Fork, where an influx of retirees and second-home owners is driving the child-bearing middle class out of town, even as it brings in outside wealth. Others came from High Plains communities such as Chester and Harlowtown, where drought and global economics have pummeled the agricultural base, and where the prospects of new baby-boomer wealth are slim to nonexistent.

White Sulphur Springs, which the group used as its base, sits right on the cusp. It is home to just 1,000 people, but it sits close enough to Bozeman and Helena to have started attracting a crowd of newcomers. The town’s young, energetic English teacher, Nancy Brastrup, doesn’t like what she sees ahead for her town. She told the group that wealthy outsiders are buying local ranches. Her brother is moving to California to try to earn some money; he hopes to come back and take over the family ranch. "He’s the only one who can do it," she said. "I can’t do it on a teacher’s salary."

Outside wealth has always been a huge factor in shaping the rural, agricultural West. Industrialists built the railroads in Montana that enabled farmers to ship and sell their crops. U.S. taxpayers have long subsidized farmers unable to compete in the marketplace.

But now, as this issue’s cover story shows, the wealth of the waxing West may help preserve a part of the waning West: the remnants of the prairie ecosystem. The good news is that so far the effort is a collaborative one. Conservationists and increasingly progressive government agencies are eager to work with local farmers and ranchers to keep agriculture on the Great Plains, even as they open the doors to conservation-based tourism.

If that happens, the busted towns will get a badly needed infusion of capital, and future motorists won’t be able to tell where one West ends and the other begins.

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