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Montana's Gallatin Valley And Wildlife Paying Big Price For Growth In Big Sky
July 18, 2023
Montana's Gallatin Valley And Wildlife Paying Big Price For Growth In Big Sky
What's happening near Gallatin Gateway, Montana is indicative, Robert Sisson says, of how developers are making profits but externalizing their costs on citizens and nature
Once upon a time, members of a famous elk herd could wander easily through it. This bird's-eye view can't hide the impact of rural sprawl rapidly filling the southern Gallatin Valley outside of Bozeman, on the edge of the Gallatin Range. The proposed gravel pit is proposed to be dug into pastoral land just north of here and out of the picture. It is another example of how former farm land, with some of the richest, deepest soils in the state and important habitat for wildlife is getting covered—a consequence of weak land use planning and zoning being exploited by developers in Big Sky, citizens say. Photo by Todd Wilkinson
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following op-ed is written by Rob Sisson who lives near Gallatin Gateway west of Bozeman and for years served as president of the national non-profit ConservAmerica which previously was known as Republicans for Environmental Protection. A former small-town mayor, he has held a number of important policy positions, including serving as a US Commissioner on the International Joint Commission which addresses environmental issues found along the northern US border with Canada. Also click here to watch a local TV report on the proposed gravel pit featuring an interview with longtime Gallatin Gateway denizen John Baden, a well known libertarian who founded the organization, FREE—Foundation on Research on Economics and the Environment. Sisson believes that the proposed gravel pit is yet another example of how sprawl and unplanned growth are rapidly eroding the fabric of rural Montana and natural landscapes in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. —Mountain Journal
by Robert Sisson
Hundreds of people who live in the pastoral area south of Gallatin Gateway had their lives turned upside recently when a letter from an engineering company informed them that a gravel pit was going to begin operation adjacent to three subdivisions on a parcel of farmland bordering the imperiled Gallatin River. The frightening letter described a 24/7 operation with crushers, asphalt plants, and hundreds of rock trucks turning on and off US Highway 191.
Certainly, no government official in their right mind would permit an industrial mining operation in a residential area, on prime farmland, on the banks of perhaps the world’s most famous blue ribbon trout river with an entrance on the most dangerous stretch of highway in Montana, was my immediate thought. It was when I found out the state legislature, in 2021, passed HB 599 into law which removed any public input on permit applications and all but rubber stamps gravel pits anywhere and anytime in the state, that I felt eviscerated by our own elected officials.
Gravel, literally, covers the entire Gallatin Valley floor, including thousands of acres far away from homes, prime wildlife habitat, blue ribbon trout water, and dangerous highways. It’s everywhere. There is no reason to target a quiet residential neighborhood along the Gallatin River.
The proposed pit is intended to supply the needs of 2nd, 3rd, and 4th homeowners in Big Sky and Yellowstone Club. Perhaps the gravel should be mined from ample supplies south of Ennis or in Big Sky itself?
As a life-long Republican, I’m dismayed that the legislature totally ignored one of the fundamental tenets of the GOP. That is, the most effective, responsible, and responsive government is government closest to the people. HB 599 took the decision to permit a mine far away from citizens and does not allow the impacted municipal government to make the decision as to what’s best for its citizens.
A 1930s-era postcard showing the stretch from Gallatin Gateway into the Gallatin Canyon representing a breathtaking portal to reach the west entrance of Yellowstone National Park. Today, with the presence of Big Sky which wasn't there in the 1930s, the drive represents one of the most dangerous stretches of highway in Montana and traffic is getting worse as Big Sky developers locate affordable housing in the Gallatin Valley, requiring them to make a 30-mile commute.
HB 599 appears to violate our constitution. It usurps the private property rights of people who live near a site proposed for a gravel pit. The Fifth Amendment of the US Constitution provides that “no person shall be ... deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”
Fee simple ownership of property includes the right to peacefully enjoy the property. And it's about respecting one's neighbors and not doing unto others what they don't want you to do to them. Government permitting an industrial mine to operate next door to private property owners, without assent, is an unconstitutional taking of property rights.
The noise, dust, light, and smells, once they leave the mine site, trespass onto the property of others. President Reagan said it best, “Many laws protecting environmental quality have promoted liberty by securing property against the destructive trespass of pollution.”
As if private property rights weren’t enough of a reason to deny the permit for this gravel pit, the site also serves as a winter feed ground for elk and is the last intact corridor for elk to travel from the Flying D Ranch conservation easement, across US 191, to the Gallatin foothills.
Pointing out that 15 elk were killed by cars on this stretch of road on one day last winter doesn’t seem to catch the attention of anyone in charge, but, sure, let’s go ahead and remove that sanctuary and add scores of rock trucks barreling down the canyon every day. It is only a matter of time before an elk or deer crashes through a windshield and takes the life of one of our neighbors.
The west half of the parcel is a FEMA floodplain bordering the Gallatin River. The Montana Department of Environmental Quality has already designated the river south of this site as impaired due to nutrients entering the river from Big Sky and the Yellowstone Club.
Curiously, the local newspaper in Big Sky which had brought such focus to traffic levels and wildlife roadkill on US Highway 191 (caused by development in Big Sky!) has done little to cover and scrutinize the huge ecological and social costs of exporting the undesirable aspects of growth fueling Big Sky and the Yellowstone Club. Those costs include this proposed gravel pit and employee housing built by the Yellowstone Club near Gallatin Gateway.
Gallatin Gateway residents love this quaint town, neighbors know each other by first name and we treasure the natural sense of place—no differently from residents of the Yellowstone Club who abide by strict covenants to, ironically, protect them from this happening to them.
Not only is the Lone Mountain Land Company, which is affiliated with the Yellowstone Club, contributing to de-wilding part of the Madison Range with its mega-development projects, but because it claims it can't afford to provide enough affordable housing for its service and construction workers in Big Sky is exporting those impacts to the Gallatin Valley. Again, this has brought little ink in the Big Sky media.
The cumulative impacts of Big Sky and Yellowstone Club development on Gallatin Gateway have already turned the community upside down. The proposed mine is one of the final nails in the coffin of a once wonderful farming enclave and the world famous “Gateway to Yellowstone National Park."
Which elected leaders will stand up and help protect the citizens of Gallatin Gateway?
The Montana Department of Environmental Quality is holding a public hearing on the gravel pit permit on Tuesday, July 25 at 6 pm in the Gallatin Gateway Community Center.