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A legacy of sprawl threatens the Big Sky's legacy of space

Driving to Helena last week for a conference titled "Big Sky or Big Sprawl? Montana at the Crossroads," which took place November 20-22, I was reminded we are blessed to live in a special place. Especially in the mountainous terrain in the western half of the state-but also in the more subtle landscapes of Eastern Montana-where you only have to drive a few miles in any direction to access a scene that will wipe your cares away if you only half let it.

Even as Montana's population swells, long-time residents of this state's cities remember a time when you hardly had to drive at all to access a pristine landscape unspoiled by the hand of human development. Montana is growing by leaps and bounds, they'll tell you-but it has been that way for over a century.

Growth here, meanwhile, has followed a pattern that is all too familiar in the urban areas of the West-with Los Angeles, Denver, Las Vegas and Phoenix among the most heinous examples of this sort of development. These cities have grown not so much up as out, creeping across the landscape and paving over wildlife habitat and agricultural soils, and depleting our sparse water supply in the process.

Here in Montana, cities such as Missoula, Great Falls, Billings, Helena, Butte, Bozeman and Kalispell have colonized territories with tract housing, four-lane thoroughfares, parking lots, and large, impersonal retail developments known as strip malls that could very well place the citizen turned consumer at the edge of Anywhere, U.S.A.

The conference began by identifying this trend, and the hypocrisy inherent in the attitudes of those who want to enjoy their little slice of heaven without having to tolerate the bothersome masses of humanity who want to do the same. Participants in the conference-coordinated by the Helena-based Alternative Energy Resources Organization-then identified the values that have been lost at the expense of such unplanned development.

Most of the attendees weren't non-profit type folks or advocates (such as myself) who think they have all of the answers, but lack necessary skills and influence to actually implement substantive changes. More to the point, the conference was well attended by planners, elected officials and developers who seem genuinely interested in implementing innovative solutions to the problems of continuing growth.

Not only has development intruded upon wildlife habitat and working farms and ranches, but it has also largely ignored or even parodied the cultural and historical heritage of Montana's urbanized areas. Such patterns only exacerbate the isolation that is inevitable when the only contact with one's neighbors in outlying communities is a casual wave from the saddle of a John Deere riding mower-and in this day and age, that's a rare sight.

The 300-plus attendees of the conference clearly shared the view that sprawl development is neither desirable nor inevitable. Instead, they argued, creeping growth has evolved out of certain regulations that seem to encourage sprawl development above other patterns of land use.

Missoula was particularly well-represented, with appearances made by Mayor Mike Kadas; County Commissioner Michael Kennedy; City Council members Lou Ann Crowley, Dave Harmon and Jim McGrath; several staff of the City/County Office of Planning and Grants; as well as innovators such as Ren Essene of WORD and Nick Kaufman of the WGM Group, both of whom can loosely be described as developers.

All these individuals seemed intent to focus on the task of ensuring that Missoula grows intelligently. To do so, Missoula-and other Montana cities-must involve its citizens in the process.

Those who advocate "smart growth" must be willing to be patient, must listen well, must persevere, must respect the opinions of those with whom we disagree, and we must use every tool available to us. We must also alter regulations that encourage sprawl development while appealing to the community-mindedness that exists in the deep recesses of every Montanan.

Finally, even those of us who would like to see our communities developed in a way that encourages bicycle and pedestrian transportation have to take a drive every once in a while. It's just about the only way to remind ourselves of all that we have to lose if we don't create an alternative vision for growth in the Big Sky country.

Rick Stern is the co-director of the Missoula Urban Demonstration Project.

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