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Searching To Find The Soul Of Community In The Welter Of A Boom

To Save The Best Of What Remains In Montana's Gallatin Valley, Lori Ryker Says Leaders And Citizens Must Start Thinking Holistically

Bozeman from the Bridger Mountains
Everybody wants a piece of this place, to shape it in our own image. Some of us want more trails to hike and ride our bikes on. Others want our viewshed protected. Some want the rapid roll-out of houses west of Bozeman to cease. Others want the jobs that come from development and resource extraction. Some want wildlife habitat protected.

These wants are passionately made clear as people think about life within the finite landscape of the Gallatin Valley. But the desires for place could be applied to any corner of this region where you wake up one morning and the conditions beyond your home give you pause, and you wonder when and how the new roads pasted with quick draw houses sprang up so fast.

For all of us who ride a bike, hike a trail, fish a stream, float a river, or ski a mountain slope in these protected lands, this place offers us experiences of feeling part of a larger whole. Similarly, the towns in which we live provide a larger social whole.  And it is for this experience of wholeness that most of us choose to be in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

If you live in the Gallatin Valley it’s probably no news that you are living in the fastest developing area in the United States. It seems that in a blink of an eye we went from surviving the recession that started in 2008 into a rapid land-grabbing development mindset overnight.

Yes, there have been other periods of economic expansion and retraction in the past but the consensus is this one isn’t going away; it’s certainly not going to reset back to a condition Bozeman ever was before.

While many residents of the region struggled to figure out how to pay their bills or keep their home through the recession, we missed an opportunity during that interval of retraction to ponder the issue of what kind of place we believe the Gallatin Valley and the Greater Yellowstone ought to be in order to retain its “greatness.” 

Within the current expansion and growth, many of us may still hold on to the boom and bust mentality of the West as a guide for making a living. We are making our decisions for ourselves and out own sustenance on belief that we should take full advantage of the current economic opportunities before they change. But what is the long-term outcome to the place we by choice call home?

Ranchers know the practice of putting more cattle out to pasture during wetter years and the necessity of having smaller herds during periods of drought. Those who became too ambitious, building herds too big that outstrip the ability of the land to sustain them, and encounter a harsh reality. You can control how a cow uses a piece of land and you can heal the disturbance of the gamble if you make a miscalculation; not so with yards of concrete and bunks of lumber set hard and fast as structures in the ground.

What is the result of maximizing these development boomtimes? We only need to look out the windshield or over the front of our handlebars to understand the long-term impact of the current permanent changes to the landscape. These changes will remain in the land and across the valley, regardless of any future bust.

As rapid expansion of our substantial footprint continues, the bigger questions of personal “belief” and community “vision” require our consideration if we are to retain the whole of this place, and our opportunities for such experiences. As a community, identifying integrity can at first seem elusive. Integrity is a powerful word. It is an open word that means different things to each of us, allowing for involved citizens to fill it with uniquely differing meanings put into practice in different ways.

Likely, my sense of integrity is different than my neighbor’s but we commonly treasure both the view of the mountains and the valleys and what is happening inside them. Reconciling individual desires with community values is hard and it is precisely why we need to come together to develop an integrated vision for the Gallatin Valley and its future.

Within this context of “community identity” is an attitude of what’s best for the “whole” binds a way forward, carrying with it expectations and experiences together.

Our growing experiences and reactions to this place, as it is changed from natural landscape to modified one, stems from speculative development whose origins can be traced back to the West’s earliest boom-times when priorities were the immediacy of making commercial transactions and not pondering the day after tomorrow.

This current 20th century model of land use draws from a vision that emphasizes distinction and separation, and privileges an individual’s economic gain over the larger needs of the whole. While development need not be an ultimately bad practice, we know that the isolated and limited knowledge typically employed for these activities are generated from decisions that are not inclusive of what is best for the whole.
"Ranchers know the practice of putting more cattle out to pasture during wetter years and the necessity of having smaller herds during periods of drought. You can control how a cow uses a piece of land and you can heal the disturbance of the gamble if you make a miscalculation; not so with yards of concrete and bunks of lumber set hard and fast as structures in the ground."                                                   —Lori Ryker
As we travel across the valley and region we witness deeply transformed environments—environmental and built fragmentation— because we are missing an articulated guidepost from which to reflect upon proposed individual actions.  Who is thinking about the whole? Who is advocating for it?  Who is thinking about the costs of fragmentation and who should be held accountable for any downsides the community does not want that result in negative impacts on community and place?

Zoning and regulations are not enough. They rely on a bureaucratic system instead of an integrated community vision.  Think of what is happening in the center of Gallatin Valley around Four Corners. We only need to witness the recent impacts of development on the wholeness of a former pastoral place, whether speculative land development or resource extraction vis a vis gravel pits and hasty logging, to understand that the results require our critical consideration and a clear and definite vision for community and place.

Meanwhile, on the eastern edge of the valley, the Montana Department of Natural Resourced is considering the new West Limestone logging project right along the seam where vestiges of open space meet the start of the Gallatin Range.

Without a doubt the outcome of such work will visually dominate the southern edge of the Gallatin Valley viewshed. Like the epic-sized gravel pit that now flanks the drive to and from the airport, the physical result of this logging operation could become the largest visual advertisement to others of our beliefs about community and environment.

The proposal to log the West Limestone illustrates that our ability to have big picture conversations is as fragmented as the environments that we create without any conscious reflection or greater vision for the future. I can understand all of the wants and desires people have, but I wonder if they address the greater needs of this place. I wonder about the community that will benefit from the logging and the community that will be harmed, including these impacts of exurbia seeping a little deeper into mountains.

What if we chose to believe that we are part of that larger whole wherever we are, not only when we hike, or bike, or ski or fish or hunt? What if community extended beyond human? Instead of taking from the wildness this place offers us, we came together to participate and lived with integrity, not with the mindset of a mining boomtown, that allows instead for the perpetuation of something greater than ourselves?

We can create any kind of community we desire—including a community that makes meaning of place.  If we don’t do it now, someone else will do it for us and probably, looking at most everywhere else, with far less reflection on what it means to think and live whole.
Lori Ryker
About Lori Ryker

Lori Ryker is a thought leader in place-based architecture and founder of Artemis Institute that teaches students how to be smarter about blending development with natural environments.  She lives in Bozeman, Montana
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