Feeling crowded around here? It is!

 

One statistic jumped out of the morning paper and jolted my brain.

The news was that America's population will hit 300 million sometime during the third week of October. But it wasn't that landmark figure that jarred my morning reverie. It was this: The United States population has grown from 200 million to 300 million since 1967. That7;s the year I was born.

In my lifetime, which seems short enough, the United States population has grown by half. Remember the old Coca-Cola jingles about "200 million people?" I do.

No wonder it's getting hard to find an uncrowded fishing spot anymore. I live in a state known for its lack of population: Montana. Montana has fewer than 1 million people. So in my lifetime, the United States has grown by more than 100 Montanas. Yet it has not gained one square inch more space.

"We are not the wide-open spaces anymore," said Martha Farnsworth Riche, demographer at Cornell University. "Our choices are constrained."

This seems increasingly obvious, whether you are stuck in a Los Angeles freeway or seeking a quiet corner of the forest for the open day of hunting season. Some demographers praise population growth — calling it evidence that America remains a vibrant and attractive nation. Being the great-great grandson of immigrants, and having seen the urban slums and rural poverty in Mexico, I cannot blame the people who long to become Americans. And knowing the joy of raising a child, I would never deny it to anyone.

But I cannot buy into the common American faith that "more" equals "better." I see no need to "supersize" the U.S.A. In much of Montana, the problem with growth is there isn't any of it. In the Great Plains, farm towns are becoming ghost towns. It's downright eerie — and sad — to watch it happen.

But in western, mountainous Montana, where I live, the population boom is in your face, every day. Like much of the scenic West, our traffic is getting more congested, our water is getting dirtier, crimes are growing deadlier, and the working farms and ranches we so appreciate are being diced, paved and parceled. This Western phenomenon, in its way, is equally heartbreaking to witness.

Certainly, there must be an alternative to a mad dash over a cliff and a slow crawl to a certain death. What is it? I don't exactly know.

But I do believe this: There are many things that make the American West a wonderful place in which to exist. These include open land where one is free to hunt, fish and roam; clean, rushing rivers; a chance to gaze at a dazzling night sky full of stars; days spent alone or with a few friends amid the sounds and sights of nature, not the sounds and smells of machines and traffic; sharing the world with big, wild creatures that evoke a deep sense of excitement. These are the treasures that I long to pass on to my son.

And, in just under 40 years, I have seen one place after another lose those things. Gradually lost, but lost forever. The tradeoffs of strip malls and sprawl seem a raw deal indeed.

I have seen some gains too. Americans now have more grizzly bears, more wolves and more bald eagles and more formally protected wilderness areas in the West than the day I was born.

This is no accident. This is the result of vision and work, dating to the days of Theodore Roosevelt, who protected 250 million acres for all Americans. In T.R.'s day, there were fewer than 100 million Americans. Now that was visionary leadership.

One hundred million human lives in the past 40 years. Mine is just one of them. To me, we are 100 million more reasons to think of the future and work to keep the American West a place of joy, wonder and adventure.

Ben Long is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is a writer in Kalispell, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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