Marketing Montana has been all the rage for decades now, with both Democrats and Republicans seeking to “improve the business climate” through tax breaks, regulatory rollbacks and outright giveaways in the form of government-sponsored subsidies. By now, however, few would dispute that Montana has been “discovered.” Yet, the fever to market Montana continues, raising the question of how much is too much—and at what point do we sacrifice the quality of life for existing residents by trying to cram more new people, homes and businesses into every valley and onto every mountainside?
Politicians like to camouflage their efforts to market Montana under the rubric of “economic development.” In most cases, what this has meant is simply extracting more of our natural resources. The march to “settle the West” began with the genocidal elimination of the American Indians and the slaughter of the great buffalo herds that thundered across the Great Plains. Once the buffalo were gone, the pillage continued as the gold rush turned rivers upside down in search of nuggets. Then came the cattle, timber and railroad barons who brought “economic development” to Montana—and left behind their varying forms of environmental degradation for future generations to live in, die from, and sooner or later, pay to clean up.
One would think, given our history, that we would learn something about the nature of “economic development” and the often dreadful consequences that ensue when long-term vision falls victim to short-term greed. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Pick any major city in Western Montana and you’ll find pretty much the same thing happening—massive, out-of-control growth as our valleys are filled with jammed-in subdivisions. And then there’s the new and ugly move toward gated communities, where a certain class of economically privileged people feel compelled to remove themselves from open contact with other Montanans, thus replicating the paranoid conditions from which many of them came.
Bozeman, originally marketed as a recreational Mecca, led the way. But soon the green fields and deep, fertile soils of the Gallatin Valley disappeared beneath a web of dirt roads and row after row of subdivision homes. Now, even in summer, the sky over the Bozeman end of the valley is brown with dust kicked up by thousands of SUVs tearing along unpaved roads that were cheap to scrape across the land as it was chopped into ever tinier lots. Did long-term vision lose out to short-term greed? You bet it did, and now long-time Bozeman residents get to breathe the consequences on a regular basis.
Or how about Whitefish? What was once a tight-knit community centered around the recreational amenities of the Big Mountain and the near proximity to Glacier National Park is in the throes of big-money manipulation that threatens to fray the very fabric of community. Simply put, many Whitefish residents are finding it harder to afford to live there thanks to “economic development” and its impacts on skyrocketing land values, rent and property taxes.
Missoula, too, has failed miserably in its attempt to control growth in its adjoining areas. More roads, more people, more cars, and more pollution seem a grim future for Montana’s Garden City, but the rush to market and develop continues unabated, with hundreds if not thousands of new subdivision homes planned.
The Bitterroot has been transformed from an agricultural “banana belt” to a landing pad for the estates of the nouveau riche. A pleasant drive down Highway 93 with a gurgling river and mountains on all sides has now become a death-defying venture. The once-common Montana greeting of one rural driver giving a slight wave to another has been replaced by the “one-finger salute” as crazies pass on double yellow lines and blind curves—apparently in too much of a hurry to pay attention to our laws or common sense.
Helena is facing the same dilemma, with massive new subdivisions that will add more than twice the current population of Townsend to its outskirts. As with the Bitterroot, when all these new people try to cram themselves on to the same narrow, two-lane roads connecting the city to the rural countryside, the friendly wave will undoubtedly give way to the raised finger.
In virtually all these cases, much of the uncontrolled sprawl is being driven by out-of-state developers from Seattle, Las Vegas and California who realize there’s a killing to be made in Montana real estate. They chop up natural landscapes, cover them with spec homes, and get the hell out of Dodge before the consequences of their cheap and dirty developments accrue. But make no mistake, those consequences are accruing.
Every day, the quality of life for existing Montana residents is lowered as the endless efforts to market Montana accelerate. Suddenly, every time you go to the river, someone’s standing in your fishing hole—or maybe several someones. The same goes for your hunting, hiking and skiing areas. And that’s nothing compared to the daily stress as frenzied drivers bring the aggressive habits of the states they left behind to laid-back Montanans who still enjoy looking around at our beautiful state when we drive.
But the impacts don’t stop there. Every time another massive subdivision is annexed to a municipality, someone has to pay for the upgrades to the roads and treatment plants required to service the new load. As one early study in Bozeman showed, that “someone” usually winds up being the existing residents, who, although realizing no increase in their services, shoulder the financial burden of development as the speculators flee with their riches.
Perhaps some day a politician will have the guts to say “enough is enough” and admit that we are seriously diminishing the quality of life that makes living in Montana such a treasure. But that day has not yet come—and the benefits of long-term vision continue to rank a distant second to the quick rewards of short-term greed.
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at firstname.lastname@example.org.