The thing about the West is that every jerk is figuring out how to rip up the landscape, and the laws in the West let him


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, Lack of enchantment: Santa Fe's boom goes flat.

"The thing about the West is that every jerk is figuring out how to rip up the landscape, and the laws in the West let him." - Retired East Coast businessman

It took several years for a retired businessman from the East Coast to look for recreational property in the West during fly fishing, hunting and ski trips. In the end, he decided to buy in New England.

Because the conversation, held in spring 1995, was informal and not intended as grist for an article, we print it without his name.

"Frankly, the West no longer gives me a buzz. The West is not pretty and charming. And what's going on out there doesn't help. What is Montana without cowboys? Once you get rid of agriculture, you're left with nothingness. You're not using the land. It becomes just looking country. And there's not a lot of that. When you throw away all of the land that's too steep to ride on or build on or that isn't pretty, there isn't much left. The West isn't nearly as big as people think.

"Of what's left, almost all of it is way overpriced. And after you buy it, you have no protection. You can spend several million dollars, and then maybe see an oil rig from your front gate. Or you may have noxious weeds, and end up spending thousands every year controlling them. If you don't, your neighbors will kill you. Or maybe water will be diverted out of the fishing stream you think is yours.

"The thing about the West is that every jerk is figuring out how to rip up the landscape, and the laws in the West let him. Unless you're so rich you don't care about someday selling your land, you shouldn't buy in the West.

"I think it's easier to be alone in rural areas of the East than in the West, where it's elbow to elbow. Rural land may be more expensive in the East, but you need a lot less of it. What is five acres in Montana, or in Colorado? Nothing. But in New England, a couple of acres is a lot because there's more variety in a small space. There's a lot of great things about the West, but it isn't cozy or intimate.

"I've come to these conclusions because after I got over my infatuation with the landscape, I began looking not just for land I could ride and fish and hunt on, but also for a place that would preserve my wealth. And the West won't do that. The whole thing is smoke and mirrors. There's an immature group of young people coming into big money on Wall Street. They shoot from the hip. They've driven the market (on Western land) up to unprecedented highs. I give this boom three to five years.

"The average tourist has no idea when they see Taos of the social and cultural disparities, and how they will be affected. I looked at a 10,000-acre property in northern New Mexico. It was fairly priced. It was up against wilderness. It was breathtaking. It was everything I wanted in a second home. Then I found out what had happened. The owner was from Chicago, and he'd posted his property to keep out local people who'd been hunting and collecting wood on that land for generations. As a result, he had several of his prize animals killed.

"Or take Vail. I still like the West for skiing. But people say 'It's beautiful' and they stick houses in the sagebrush near Vail. What are they, crazy?

"There are other problems. The Tax Reform Act of 1986 destroyed the real estate industry. Now if you have a loss on a second home, you have to absorb it. And they've tightened the tax laws on depreciation and losses on cattle ranches. That helped kill the market for these properties.

"But overall, the West has no charm, no culture. The mountain West is a result of 77 million baby boomers chasing their youth. Montana is the Last Best Place - Incorporated. And everywhere in the West, if you don't like rubber tomahawks, what's left?' "

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