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Ignoring Costs Of Growth, Climate Change, Rooted In The Same Mentality Of Denial

Healthy landscapes are the underpinning of good living in Bozeman and the rural West

Growth and architectural design that emulates the natural skyline or stands in contradiction to it?  Photograph by Tim Crawford
Growth and architectural design that emulates the natural skyline or stands in contradiction to it? Photograph by Tim Crawford
"The opposite for courage is not cowardice, it is conformity. Even a dead fish can go with the flow." —Jim Hightower

At roughly 11 in the morning on November 17, 2018,  I had the mixed blessing of introducing Jim Hightower to attendees of the Northern Plains Resource Council annual meeting in Billings, Montana. I say roughly 11am as Northern Plain’s yearly gatherings are not dictatorially-timed events, not unlike the lives of their members who make their living off the land.  

I say the blessing was mixed because I am less than fully comfortable speaking before a large audience. Also, I believe I was chosen because I’d met Mr. Hightower a couple of times in years' past.  

Northern Plains is an organization devoted to representing the interests of farmers and ranchers who are interested in true multi-generational sustainability, committed to maintaining clean water and good soil, and who often struggle against the perils of global market economics and  federal policies favoring natural resource extraction industries, including Big Agriculture.

At Northern Plains meetings you’ll meet one of the highest concentrations in Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas of what we call “mom and pop agrarians,” meaning ag operations that are still family owned and operated. I happen to own a farm in the Gallatin Valley and a ranch near Roundup. 

Seldom do we think of it this way, but the mom and pop agrarians who are credited with preserving the pastoral charms of the Gallatin Valley are confronting epic change being wrought by industries just as those out on the high plains are.  Real estate speculation is an industry just as digging for coal is, and both stand to leave the landscapes of their communities and the planet transformed.

It was an honor to introduce Jim Hightower. He has been a champion of little people. He and I certainly were more casual acquaintances than good friends. I am, however, a longtime admirer and reader of his work in The Progressive magazine, and his monthly socio-political epistle The Hightower Lowdown, in which he shares his sharp political insights with a good deal of wry humor.

Jim Hightower, the rabble rouser who once served as commissioner of the Texas Department of Agriculture
Jim Hightower, the rabble rouser who once served as commissioner of the Texas Department of Agriculture
In as much as Northern Plains is seriously involved with scrutinizing the development and questionable future of coal in Montana, I chose to frame my introduction with a quote from Bill McKibben’s recent piece on the changing global climate in the November 22 issue of The New York Review of Books, a magazine I like to be seen reading at lunch in order to maintain a cover of literacy.

McKibben’s words, which I quoted and speak to what lies ahead for the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, go as follows: 

“Over and over we’ve gotten scientific wakeup calls, and over and over we’ve hit the snooze button.” (Here I interjected my own smartass comment “Now the good news.’)  If we keep doing that, climate change will no longer be a problem, because calling something a problem implies there’s still a solution."

I then introduced Hightower who kept the audience wide awake and stimulated with a continuum of entertaining commentary about the state of our nation. He pointed out that we needed to not forget the party part of our political parties—as in confronting challenges that are not very funny by trying to keep our good humor.

We all do better and generally get our points across more effectively if we are having a good time suggesting improved opportunities for doing better, rather than dire warnings, about the opposition’s ruination of the country should they prevail.

Northern Plains was formed several decades ago in order to fight a coal industry proposal to build a railroad up the Tongue River Valley to move its product to market with less expense. The proposed rail line would bisect many family-owned ranches and effectively damage many located along the Tongue River valley, to the point of essential ruin. These ranchers and other folks along the proposed route organized and effectively waged a battle to stop this inhuman and environmentally disastrous plan.

Many likeminded residents in eastern Montana joined Northern Plains. Despite Bozeman's reputation for being a bastion of professional conservationists, the truth is that the members of Northern Plains who have their lives and livelihoods on the line lead by example in wearing their ethics on their sleeves.

With systematically good leadership and staff, Northern Plains remains a strong representative for promoting both a healthy economy and environment in that part of Montana which has escaped the unfortunate lure of glamorous Bozeman-style growth, at least to this observer.
Crawford wonders: "When Bozeman and the Gallatin Valley grow up, what do they want to be?"  Photograph by Tim Crawford
Crawford wonders: "When Bozeman and the Gallatin Valley grow up, what do they want to be?" Photograph by Tim Crawford
Bozeman, in fact, has become a prototype of unsustainable growth gone way beyond any limits of virtuous human value and scale. Many small towns people in the smaller, often economically less favored communities in Montana envy the obvious dynamic expansion presently sweeping across the Gallatin Valley—that is, until they try to balance incomes as residents in that area with the even more dynamic growth of living costs. This, as some of the most fertile soil in the state goes under the bulldozer, not the plough, and becomes entombed forever beneath concrete and asphalt.

In many ways Bozeman has become a near perfect reflection of McKibben’s cautionary remarks as related above. Development has had great appeal for refugees from the reality of sprawl from which they come, irony apparently escaping them. 
This, as some of the most fertile soil in the state goes under the bulldozer, not the plough, and becomes entombed forever beneath concrete and asphalt. In many ways Bozeman has become a near perfect reflection of McKibben’s cautionary remarks.
These urban fugitives claim a desire for a simpler life. Oddly, some of Bozeman's attractions beside easy access to outdoor activities and a more healthful lifestyle (compared to other urban areas) are many of the same amenities that have gone absent from the places of their departure. We, however, as we sit in traffic problems growing ever worse, are well aware of what we're rapidly losing.

The need for clean public transportation has had little appeal for transplants moving to subdivisions reliant on private automobiles to which they are already accustomed. And the newcomers have little awareness of whom and what they are displacing. Those little-considered lower-income folk whose dwellings have been destroyed in order to make room for the new higher-end domiciles obviously are again not considered in planning for transportation. 

As with the faux financially-based subdivision developments in the rest of America since World War II, little note has been paid to increasing scientific warnings as to the climactic results inevitable from increased anthropogenic fossil fuel use. Our biggest reckoning will be with water.

There is more than an obvious parallel to the reality of these warnings pertaining to climate change over the last couple of decades and the growth of Bozeman. Willful ignorance of environmental damage in pursuit of profits is moral denial of the consequences of one’s acts.
There is more than an obvious parallel to the reality of these warnings pertaining to climate change over the last couple of decades and the growth of Bozeman. Willful ignorance of environmental damage in pursuit of profits is moral denial of the consequences of one’s acts.
The hodgepodge, mostly-unplanned locations of subdivisions in Bozeman extending into the greater Gallatin Valley has resulted in extremely difficult if not impossible future service for public transportation. 

Some form of low carbon public transit could evolve along major traffic corridors if community leaders had the gumption and foresight to provide parking areas for subdivision residents desirous of that form of responsible transportation. 

The development community led by the Southwest Montana Building Industry Association (SWMBIA) promoted the idea that “market forces” should best determine the direction and shape of growth. The affordable housing they claimed would magically appear through the free market has yet to arrive.  And as SWMBIA continues its fight against impact fees intended to address the costs of growth community members sit quiet as our taxes continue to climb.
At the current conservative growth rate for Bozeman and the Gallatin Valley, the local population here will surpass 200,000 when a baby born today graduates from high school.  "The boosters of growth say it raises all boats in our community,"  columnist Tim Crawford says, "but how is growth making our valley better?  And who is benefitting?  More importantly, who is paying for it?  If growth is paying for itself, then why do taxes continue to rise?"  Photograph by Tim Crawford
At the current conservative growth rate for Bozeman and the Gallatin Valley, the local population here will surpass 200,000 when a baby born today graduates from high school. "The boosters of growth say it raises all boats in our community," columnist Tim Crawford says, "but how is growth making our valley better? And who is benefitting? More importantly, who is paying for it? If growth is paying for itself, then why do taxes continue to rise?" Photograph by Tim Crawford
And elected officials in Bozeman and Gallatin County went along with SWMBIA, it seems, in happy collusion. This is not uncommon in those uber-urban areas which have subscribed to the ultra-American religion that if growth is good, then more must be better.

Naturally, the development of the community has most directly benefitted developers with enthusiastic cooperation of the ancillary folk—bankers, realtors, lawyers and others in good standing with the Chamber of Commerce. A brief look at local promotional literature will bear this out.  It may be easy to point fingers, but few of us benefitting from the general profiteering in the Greater Bozone are without responsibility.

Northern Plains' fight to protect agrarians from the impacts of climate change by fighting the cause of the problem at its source is really no different from those in Bozeman and the Gallatin Valley demanding that we save this place by beholding the big picture and the undesirable end game if we say and do nothing. 

As Bill McKibben noted, a wake-up call is sounding loudly. Although it’s abundantly easier to hit the snooze button and drift back into dreamland, denial will not keep us in our long slumber nor ensure us a pleasant awakening.
Tim Crawford
About Tim Crawford

Tim Crawford once served as a city commissioner in the resort town of Ketchum, Idaho as it contended with growth. Today, he is a downtown Bozeman businessman, a Gallatin Valley farmer, professional photographer and lifelong conservationist who loves to hunt and fish.
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