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Circling the Welcome Wagons

Equity-rich boomers who yearn for wide-open spaces are heading for the Rocky Mountain West--Montana in particular--where the locals are waiting. With pitchforks.

November 26, 2006|Jim Robbins | Jim Robbins lives in Helena, Mont., and is the author of "Last Refuge: The Environmental Showdown in the American West," among other books.

For a long time, people settled in this country where the natural resources were, or along railroads and highways. That left giant swaths of American outback empty by default, and the Rocky Mountain West, with its mind-numbing distances and extreme environment, was, for a long time, among the emptiest. Thirty years ago, when I moved from upstate New York to Montana, it was still a high-country Brigadoon, hidden away from the real world by its location, climate and deficit of jobs. The few cities were islands in an ocean of drop-dead beautiful landscapes. Montana and the other mountains and canyons of the nation's cordillera, in Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico, weren't yet known as the Third Coast--the next major American settlement after the East Coast, the first, and the West Coast on the Pacific Ocean.

The problem with living on the Third Coast is that we all saw what happened to the second.

It's not that a little new blood isn't a fine thing; Manifest Destiny isn't all wrong. Migration brings interesting ideas and new money that does a lot of good, building restaurants and cultural institutions, creating sustainable jobs and restoring historic buildings. But there's a tipping point past which newcomers become too numerous, paving the way for one of the great paradoxes: They destroy what attracted them. "What is good in reasonable measure is often bad in full measure," the late historian K. Ross Toole once wrote, "and Montana has been a place of full measure."

If you believe that civilizations should be predicated on preserving the natural systems that sustain them, and on sharing them evenly with other species and people, then the balance has, in fact, tipped, not only in Montana but in the other states in the Rocky Mountain West. The migration has become an invasion.

In the 1990s, it was as if the gods in charge of trends had commanded that it was time for wealthy executives and celebrities to own prime stretches of ponderosa forests with trout streams in the Rocky Mountains. Many of those who bought into this trend were well-meaning. For every greedy invader there was a Liz Claiborne or a Ted Turner, welcome neighbors who hired locals, set up charitable foundations and protected their wide-open spaces with conservation easements in which they sold off the right to develop their ranches and defended the land against sprawl--the darkest demon of the New West--in exchange for tax benefits.

The mega-trend they pioneered, though, has been like an earthquake for those who have lived here for generations. Out-of-state buyers spend what to them is chump change; to locals, the tens of millions paid for a movie-star ranch amounts to several lifetimes of savings. Even if they had the money, it wouldn't make sense to spend so much for a place where their cattle could graze.

"When I look to buying land I crunch the numbers on production value," says Bill Donald, president of the Montana Stockgrowers Assn. and a rancher near Melville. "Now you can't pay for the land with production values. It's not even close." In the last five years his property has more than doubled in value. If he sold it, where would he go? Many are leaving western Montana, he says, and buying cheaper ranches farther east, in something he calls the "eastern wave."

Montanans who get by on $20,000 or $25,000 a year and drive 10-year-old pickups crane their necks to look at the multimillion-dollar castles going up on the hills and hear about how the owners bought a personal quarry to provide rock for the construction crews, and we feel like vassals. The newcomers often don't understand the live-and-let-live philosophy of our way of life. One of the first things many do is put up stout, expensive fences and heavy-duty gates equipped with locks; they hire armed guards and cut off traditional access to their land--sometimes to public land as well. James Cox Kennedy, chairman of Cox Enterprises in Atlanta, built a fence in southwest Montana that prevented people from getting to the Ruby River. Last year, several hundred angry public access advocates took a flotilla of boats down the river through the billionaire's ranch. They enjoyed the trip, though it didn't make any difference.

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