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Mapping Our Values

Gallatin County, the fastest growing county in Montana, unveils Sensitive Lands Protection Plan aiming to guide county growth

In a recent survey, 75 percent of Gallatin County residents indicated they think the county is growing at an unsustainable pace. Big Sky, Montana, pictured here, grew nearly 200 percent over the past 20 years, according to the 2020 U.S. Census. Photo by Chris Kamman
In a recent survey, 75 percent of Gallatin County residents indicated they think the county is growing at an unsustainable pace. Big Sky, Montana, pictured here, grew nearly 200 percent over the past 20 years, according to the 2020 U.S. Census. Photo by Chris Kamman
by David Tucker

On October 19, the City of Bozeman and Gallatin County officials debuted the final draft of their Sensitive Lands Protection Plan, the result of a collaborative process focused on identifying key undeveloped lands in Gallatin County and outlining actions that could potentially protect those resources.

The plan recommendations aim to enhance wildlife migration connectivity, preserve the area’s agricultural heritage, increase resilience in the face of climate change, and safeguard wildlife populations as southwest Montana continues to see unprecedented residential, commercial and industrial development.
"Gallatin County, at 122,000 people, is the fasting growing county in Montana, 20 percent faster than the next fastest growing county.”  – Jeremy Call, environmental consultant with Logan Simpson
“Seventy percent of all the growth [in Gallatin County] has just happened in the last 40 years,” said Jeremy Call, an environmental consultant with Logan Simpson, the firm hired to lead the Sensitive Lands Study, during the presentation. “When you think about the scale of growth, from 150 years ago with very small communities to the size that we are now, Gallatin County, at 122,000 people, is the fasting growing county in Montana, 20 percent faster than the next fastest growing county.”

Between 1990 and 2016, more than 93,000 acres of Gallatin County were converted from open space to sprawl, according to Bozeman-based research group Headwaters Economics. In that same period, single-family home construction grew 150 percent, from 11,640 homes to 28,938 homes, and a third of those homes were built on lots larger than ten acres. This fragmentation of habitat can have lasting negative impacts on wildlife migration corridors, water quality and quantity, agricultural productivity and natural biodiversity, defining characteristics of the Gallatin Valley and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in general.
Rapid growth in Gallatin Valley is crowding wildlife and traffic creating dangerous routes over major thoroughfares like Highway 191 in Gallatin Gateway. Photo by Holly Pippel
Rapid growth in Gallatin Valley is crowding wildlife and traffic creating dangerous routes over major thoroughfares like Highway 191 in Gallatin Gateway. Photo by Holly Pippel
This pattern of growth was the impetus for the Gallatin Valley Sensitive Lands Study, initiated in the summer of 2022 by officials from the City of Bozeman and Gallatin County. Stakeholders from these governments along with relevant federal agencies, local nonprofits and a variety of other entities met regularly to define project goals, drawing on available high-quality data to identify the lands in question and develop recommendations that can now be implemented by city and county planners, landowners, developers, land trusts, and land managers.

“The purpose of this study is to look forward a century and think about what will be our community’s wants,” Call continued. “One hundred years from now, we’ll have all the wealth to purchase whatever money can buy, but all these riches will not be able to afford a lost opportunity, or preserve landscapes of grandeur and richness. They won’t be able to purchase the elk herds that we appreciate seeing or the family farms. And so, this is an opportunity for us to come together and say, ‘What do we really love, why, and can we map it?’”

Public anxiety related to the pace and nature of recent land development was a critical motivation for the Sensitive Lands Study. According to plan authors, 75 percent of surveyed area residents believe the county is developing at an unsustainable pace, and a similar percentage of all Montanans consider themselves conservationists. Taking these statistics together, one might assume the implementation of a Sensitive Lands Plan such as this would encounter few obstacles and rapid adoption, but a similar planning effort from the mid-1990s was never adopted by local officials, paving the way—literally, in some cases—for the pace and scale of built-environment expansion that we’ve seen over the last quarter-century.
Seventy-five percent of surveyed area residents believe Gallatin County is developing at an unsustainable pace, and a similar percentage of all Montanans consider themselves conservationists. 
“With some of the earlier studies, the political will just wasn’t there,” said John Edwards, Sacajawea Audubon Society board member and participant in the Sensitive Lands working group. “The difference now is there’s more political will. If you look at the county commissioners now, they’re very much aware of environmental issues and they’re very much interested in preserving what environmental value we have left in our valley. The political will in Bozeman leadership is very high, too.”

While elected officials, government staffers and the public in general appear supportive of protecting our regional natural resources, the Sensitive Lands Plan carries with it no new regulation or legally binding restrictions. “What we’re not doing is probably just as important,” Call said. “We’re not creating any new regulations. We’re not changing land use on anyone’s property. We’re not targeting specific parcels to acquire or to modify. We’re not changing any existing property right. What we’re trying to do is say, ‘Can we come together and think about the future in a new way.’”

That question will be answered, at least partially, by the citizens of Gallatin County. “I’m hopeful the public has the political will to support this, too,” said Edwards. “There’s an article in the paper every day about how we’re losing water quality, growth is out of control and complaints about this and that.”

With the plan’s final draft now released, the public has one last chance to weigh in before city and county officials vote on adoption in the coming months. Public comments are due by November 5, making participation over the next few weeks critical to the path we take as a community over the next few decades. Visit gallatinvalleyplan.bozeman.net to make a comment, view the plan, its relevant datasets and current recommendations.
David Tucker
About David Tucker

David Tucker is a freelance journalist covering conservation, recreation and the environment in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
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