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Tate: Growth Is Rapidly Changing Our Communities And We Do Not Feel Fine
July 12, 2021
Tate: Growth Is Rapidly Changing Our Communities And We Do Not Feel Fine
By day he is a practicing therapist; for 40 years he's been a citizen in Bozeman. Timothy Tate sees many Greater Yellowstone towns losing their identity
A poster touting Montana created by Martin Weitzman in the 1930s for the Works Progress Administration's (WPA) Federal Arts Project. In those days tourism augmented natural resource extraction as an economic driver; today it is an industry with huge environmental and social impacts all its own. Image courtesy Library of Congress
by Timothy Tate
It’s seldom as it seems. The river is cloudy giving cover to feeding trout which are not supposed to be active yet we still lay a fat salmon fly cast on the surface, hoping for the best.
Or, the weather forecast warns of severe thunderstorms and yet the afternoon breezes by displaying dark cumulus clouds but no turbulence, yet.
Or, nearby, a riding horse hired for a backcountry camping trip, guaranteed to be steady and easy to ride, bucks the tourist off, spooked by a rattler.
The mountain West is not intentionally capricious, it’s simply unpredictable and we locals like it like that. Mostly.
I’m curious what readers think and I’d like to have you drop me a note with your thoughts because I’d like to compare your sentiments with the kind of things I’m hearing, from friends, business people and clients. If I get enough thoughtful observations I'll share them in a future column.
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I’ve been musing more often of late about why more people want to be here now than 20 years ago, and I’m wrestling with the enigma of how, when destinations become popular, they quickly start to shed the luster that existed before the great hordes arrived.
This isn’t me saying “now that I’m here, lock the doors;” it’s more of being psychologically intrigued by what’s causing locals who have had enough in now bustling Greater Yellowstone towns and are deciding to leave.
What are the values of those who are replacing them? Do they have an appreciation and respect for the caliber of wild country they are choosing to inhabit? If growth means sending longtime citizens headed for the exits, I think there’s a problem.
This is an important community topic but it is not being discussed in any serious, ongoing public way by any town councils, county commissions or other entities who are making decisions that are, in part, creating the problem by what they are or are not doing. They are in reactive mode. The exodus of locals is also a topic that we almost never see discussed in local newspapers.
Are newcomers coming for wildness that they then desire to tame?
Are they here because it’s the trendy place to be yet they know little of what this place is—and that its charm was in not aspiring to be trendy?
Are they enamored by the opportunity to buy local produce from farmer’s markets, but have no idea where the water reaching their tap comes from?
Are they drawn to our valleys because of the pastoral open space yet they will not hesitate or reflect for a second on what is lost when they site their dream home or subidivision right in the middle of it?
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I know it's rare to have a psychological therapist write a column about community. Why I enjoy contributing to Mountain Journal is that such questions as those above are being regularly raised and explored. What we're facing are not issues that can be fixed by engineers installing more roundabouts, or haphazard piecemeal attempts at addressing the lack of affordable housing, or natural resource planners who claim the answer to addressing overcrowding problems on the Madison River to is create float times like you might arrange tee-times at a busy golf course.
We need to start having a different kind of community conservation that cannot happen through existing collaboration processes or bureaucratic public comment periods in which people who dwell in cubicles collate "input" and then lay out options that conform and do not challenge their own biases. And, I would argue, instead of treating places as a menu of items to graze from we might step back and really ponder what makes them special.
Our landscapes of mythic raw individualism host a panoply of options for guests, multi-generation residents, and true Montana Natives, the latter an allusion to the paradox of pride expressed on a bumper sticker. Ironically, those who attach the slogan to their vehicles don’t often reflect on how their ancestors displaced the First Peoples. Just saying.
However we came to the Rockies, whenever we came, be it 30,000, 10,000 or two days ago, or whatever our claim to its dirt, our mountains today are bearing witness to human folly. We think first of how to monetize our entry into the cathedral rather than humbly acknowledging the cathedral exists.
For the first time ever in many corners of Greater Yellowstone, we humans arguably are poised to leave our valleys far lesser places in terms of their power and allure than how we found them..
We think first of how to monetize our entry into the cathedral rather than humbly acknowledging the cathedral exists. For the first time ever in many corners of Greater Yellowstone, we humans arguably are poised to leave our valleys far lesser places in terms of their power and allure than how we found them.
I projected this thought onto Mt. Cowan in the Absarokee as I drove down Paradise Valley to fetch our pull-behind camping trailer tucked into a fishing access campsite at Loch Leven.
Regular campsites at hosted campgrounds, if you haven’t heard, are booked full these days like reservations at a fancy NYC restaurant are booked out six months to a year in advance. The scene at campgrounds and boat put-ins on rivers during the Fourth of July weekend was, from the view of many, unprecedented and gut-wrenching.
Many locals I know are stunned.
What we are serving up in the Northern Rockies is beauty and it’s becoming increased reserved for guests. Thankfully, our daughter-in-law jumped on the reservation system at 12:01 am six months in advance of the days we wanted to stay at a local campsite in the Gallatin Valley.
The kinds of disruptions happened are many. Have you experienced traffic in Yellowstone or Gallatin Canyon or Jackson Hole lately? Did you hear about the vandalism to signs up Hyalite Canyon and the Hyalite Reservoir?
Fishing access sites are first come first served, have no campground hosts to maintain decorum, and do not enforce civilized quiet hours between 10 pm and 6 am. I knew that was true but when I called the Park County, Montana Sheriff on duty at 12 midnight to ask for a drive by check and enforce quiet hours, she responded from what seemed like a well-worn script: “There is no noise ordinance in Park County. This is not a law enforcement issue. It is a management one.”
So, is the implication that I have to get in a brawl with Mr. Generator Guy running his $250,000 RV before succor arrives? Nah, I’ll just seethe myself to sleep. But it ought not to be like this. We are creating problems for which management might not be able to provide a fix.
Is it just me or have we lost a lot of common courtesies in the desire of some to make our towns as busy as possible?
I guess that is why those who know me well call me a Puritan Radical.
Tate took this photograph on a recent hike into the mountains. He loves the stormy weather, especially thunderstorms that bring rain, but he senses that many locals are feeling rattled by the record inundation of people moving to Bozeman and soaring recreation on public lands and waterways. While it's easy to gripe, tougher is adopting a cohesive strategy for confronting it—a strategy that must be led, he says, by elected leaders.
Peace and quiet seems to wax—grow— in importance as we age. Left to our own resources, as unbridled Westerners who would rather not be treaded on by fancy laws that govern human behavior, we submit to the inconsiderate option of alleged “freedom,” draped in American flags and calibrated to the lowest common denominators of inconsiderate fellow citizens.
Maybe that is why European countries who suffered the depravity of human capacity that was demonstrated in world wars chose to rein in our collective darkside and engineer social democracy as a method of protecting the greater good from ambush by nonage behavior.
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When not seeking non-peace and quiet in nature, I am content to retreat to our cedar shake passive solar home in Bozeman that is protected by a steel fence and plants, perennials, and pines. I am grateful that we moved into this property over 30 years ago and that my wife has a talent for natural landscaping that is a reliable refuge.
I suppose it is our later years that contribute to nurturing sense of this retreat. We have had our day in these majestic mountain valleys. I am not registering regrets nor spoiled annoyance at newcomers since I too, after all, am one—40 years ago.
What I AM conveying is that sans the ethic of caretaking each other and our beloved Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, we are skidding towards the junkyard of disposable modernity.
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(Speaking of junkyards, maybe you have seen metal boneyards on the rural landscape where retired cars, trucks, tractors, trailers, and other metal monsters are left to decompose? Rather than the salvage yards in urban landscapes where the dead machines are crushed into rusty cubes and shipped off to be reborn, we here in the West have a tradition of sending all matter of retired content out to pasture, gully, draw, or back-forty.
One such unholy metal junk retirement community sprawled until recently near Chico Hot Springs at the foot of Emigrant Peak, its majesty visible from Loch Leven campground. How did ugly get to convene in paradise? And looking back, what it a bad thing?
The real question, now that the eyesore is gone and might be replaced by a new subdivision of homes that would be marketed as allegedly “affordable,” is which human construction detracts from view and place—which represents a bigger negative impact on wildlife trying to pass through and, after that new permanent subdivision goes in, what’s next?
Oh, the value of eyesores as sprawl repellant when you need it).
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Yes, we have come to a cultural and planetary fork in the road. The divisiveness of our personality politics, rife with disinformation platforms, is symptomatic of our juncture in history. If individual consciousness is representative of the greater whole, then the troubles of clients I hear in my private practice speaks to an emerging citizen rattling and ultimately, a reckoning.
There is today a mix of relief that the pandemic protocols have passed in many places but it’s accompanied by a sense that this was but the first major storm in a potential coming series of viral and bacterial events.
My question is: was the Covid-19 pandemic a singular major event that we endured but has now largely vanished or was it the clarion call for humanity? My friend, the eminent Bozeman science writer David Quammen, believes it is probably the latter and we need to be better prepared for the next one.
As I’ve written before, people are anxious and local people are feeling unsettled by the change. The insurance claims I submit for my clients are typically one of three diagnoses: generalized anxiety, adjustment, or mood disorders. What drives these disorders has changed over time.
Once upon a time, a common anxiety in Bozeman, Montana was worrying about personal finances and retirement, but now it's a global viral infection and an inability by many locals to find affordable housing.
A gauge of the capacity we have as a species for perceptual change is said to be that we will not fundamentally change how we perceive reality until and unless our perceptual matrix of stability no longer works at all.
A popular patch, sold at Bridger Bowl, that locals in Bozeman proudly sewed onto their ski jackets in the days when Bridger's mystique was as one of the best local quaint ski hills in America. In recent years, many longtime supporters of Bridger have expressed alarm as ticket prices have increased and it has moved to expand, in turn fueling more development and traffic in Bridger Canyon. Not long ago the following wording was proposed for dropping from Bridger's corporate bylaws: "The object of the corportion shall be to provide out-standing skiing and snowboard: First to the residents of Gallatin County; second to the citizens of the State of Montana; and, third, to areas out-side Montana, and to do so at the lowest prices consistent with good business practices such as to allow the continued healthy operation of Bridger." The change is interpreted in different ways by different people.
It’s analogous to the frog in a pot of warming water. In the case of Portland, Oregon recently, a record heat temperature for a single day—117 degrees—was a dozen more than the previous record.
Incremental adaptation to rising temperatures in a way contributes to the ultimate crisis because it allows us to deny moment by moment what is happening before our eyes. This point was driven home when I met a neighbor who was on his bike leaving for Montana State University where he is a professor and I was beginning my walk down to my office. He remarked about the record breaking Phoenix, Arizona-like temperatures in Canada and a town engulfed in flames. He then invoked the famous frog in the pot analogy. “When you slowly raise the temperature on the water in a vessel where a frog is kept, it adapts to the increasing temperature.”
I pitched in saying, “until he jumps out.” And the neighbor replied, “no, he stays in until he dies.”
I am reminded of the Indie rock group REM’s song released in 1987 entitled: “It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine).”
I enjoyed the irony of this lyric when it was first released and now we live the paradox as a global reality. We are tasked with finding meaning, love, peace of mind, and beauty in the Anthropocene.
How do we accomplish equanimity for fellow humans and other beings when we are so detached from reality? Indigenous people can tell us about change; they've already endured the nightmarish transformation of place in the West that non-natives cannot imagine.
So what is the answer? We must find a way to exert a presence of dignity, forthrightness, clarity, non-reactivity, support of wise policy makers, and embrace a joy that transcends circumstances which require us to confront unpleasant challenges. Together, we are frogs in the pot. Unless we find a way to have a new kind of dialogue about community, we will not achieve what we desire to be, and we will not feel fine.