Development in Bozeman and the basin

The West continues to morph from growth and climate change.


“On the Road to 50” is an ongoing series of the publisher's notes to our readers, as he travels the region and plans for our 50th anniversary – through community gatherings, individual meetings, and other listening sessions.

The white stuff falling from the sky on June 7, the day of High Country News’ board meeting in Bozeman, Montana, wasn’t quite snow and it wasn’t quite sleet. “That would be graupel,” one local told me at Wild Joe’s Coffee Spot, one of the half-dozen or so cafes on the bustling Main Street. Outside, the miniature snowballs were forming a layer of slush on the sidewalk, while dozens of flame-orange and red western tanagers huddled in the bushes on the side streets, waiting for a break in the storm.

The weather didn’t stop 75 or so hardy Bozemanites from attending HCN’s first official “On the Road to 50” reader event, held that night at the historic Baxter Hotel. After Editor-in-Chief Brian Calvert, who oversees the magazine from Gunnison, Colorado, and Associate Editor Emily Benson, who reports from Moscow, Idaho, described how our geographically dispersed editorial staff generates on-the-ground reporting from our 12-state beat, the audience shared story ideas and gave feedback on HCN’s direction as we launch into our second half-century of existence.

One thing on everyone’s mind: growth. With a population of 112,000, Bozeman and its satellite communities are one of the nation’s fastest-growing micropolitan areas, and demographers predict another 55,000 residents by 2045, drawn here by Montana State University, a burgeoning tech industry and the stunningly beautiful mountains and valleys, all within an hour’s drive of Yellowstone National Park. There’s a reason former HCN Senior Editor Ray Ring’s column, “Top Ten Reasons Not to Move to Bozeman,” has remained our most-read online story since it was published in 2013. “When do we kill the goose that laid the golden egg?” asked Tim Crawford, a longtime local business-owner.

Bozeman’s growth has led to heated fights over everything from the height of local buildings — several giant cranes loomed over the low-slung downtown area — to the management of Custer-Gallatin National Forest, just outside of town. Several readers told me that the U.S. Forest Service’s recently released draft management plan gives too much roadless land to mountain bikers and snowmobiles, and retains too little for actual wilderness, where elk and grizzlies and other wild animals don’t have to contend with humans on machines. Others argued that the plan simply reflects the area’s changing demographics and the need for greater access to public lands. “It’s time to move on. Public lands are not just about designating wilderness anymore,” one longtime conservationist said.

Several readers praised the broadening scope of HCN’s coverage, with one middle-school teacher describing how her students loved our January graphic-novel-style feature about an all-girl Navajo rock band. Another reader, who identified herself as a member of the Navajo Nation, said she appreciated our expanded coverage of tribal issues.

Thank you, Bozeman. Our next “On The Road to 50” event takes place Sept. 13 in Salt Lake City. Stay tuned for details.


Artist Patrick Kilkut from the University of Wyoming made drawings and paintings while on the expedition down the Green River.
Paul Larmer

WITH HIS FLOPPY HUCK FINN STRAW HAT, white plastic Walmart sunglasses, and baggy boat pants big enough for two, Thomas Minckley doesn’t look like your typical scientist. Then again, I haven’t met that many paleo-ecologists — certainly not the sort who spent their youth riding flash floods on sheets of plywood in the desert outside Phoenix. Perhaps that experience helped inspire him to become the fearless leader of this summer’s 77-day voyage down the Green and Colorado rivers, 150 years after John Wesley Powell’s epic river trip. Minckley has never been one to avoid a challenge; a longtime HCN reader, he now teaches students at the fossil-fueled University of Wyoming that climate change is a reality, not a debate.

Shortly after the Bozeman board meeting, I joined Minckley and the crew of his Sesquicentennial Colorado River Exploring Expedition (SCREE), on one leg of their 1,000-mile float through the Colorado Basin, from Green River, Wyoming, to Lake Mead on the Arizona-Nevada border. Our group — which included a couple of water scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey and several longtime HCN readers, including Western historian Paul Hirt of Arizona State University, and Dan McCool, a political science professor at the University of Utah — set out to navigate the Green River’s Desolation and Gray canyons down to Green River, Utah. The 86-mile stretch hasn’t changed much since Powell described it back in 1869:

The river is very rapid and many lateral canyons enter on either side. … Crags and tower-shaped peaks are seen everywhere, and away above them, long lines of broken cliffs; and above and beyond the cliffs are pine forests, of which we obtain occasional glimpses as we look up through a vista of rocks. … We are minded to call this the Canyon of Desolation.”

It’s still a wild and remote place; one evening, a black bear scampered through our shady campsite underneath old gnarled cottonwood trees. But SCREE’s task is to document not only the canyons’ enduring beauty, but also the changes in the basin, from oil and gas fields in the north to the depleted reservoirs in the south, and to ponder the uncertain future facing the 40 million people who rely on the Colorado River.

Would Powell be surprised by today’s landscape? Minckley doubts it. “We like to think of John Wesley Powell as a visionary conservationist, but his mission was to ‘reclaim’ the Colorado River basin for human use. I think he would be just fine with all of the dams, agricultural fields and oil and gas wells.” You can follow the SCREE team’s progress this summer at

Paul Larmer is executive director/publisher of High Country News.

NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect that Bozeman and the surrounding area has a population of 112,000, not Bozeman itself.


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