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Why Do We Run Away?

Maybe the only hope we have to stop our towns and wild places from changing is to change our belief that their destruction is inevitable. But, as Timothy Tate writes, it's almost impossible to do

Hitting the road? Many locals in high-growth towns have turned to Zillow to make them feel better about skyrocketing real estate values even as they feel the character of their towns slipping away. Photo courtesy Guillaume Dutilh/CC BY-SA/4.0
Hitting the road? Many locals in high-growth towns have turned to Zillow to make them feel better about skyrocketing real estate values even as they feel the character of their towns slipping away. Photo courtesy Guillaume Dutilh/CC BY-SA/4.0

by Timothy Tate

Bozeman is undergoing tectonic changes to the nature of our beloved landscape and cultural ethos. We are not alone. 

Not all communities in Greater Yellowstone, however, are coping with growth-related issues. Some smaller outposts are dealing with a different kind of existential shock—the pervasive fear among locals that their town is shrinking, losing people, and they realize that if something isn’t done, it will die.

The irony is that a once authentic community can wither at the same time it is growing. What I mean by that is the former core of a community’s essential social self and which may have framed the appeal of the town to newcomers, can evaporate in ways similar to those losing population.

In a boomtown like Bozeman, longtime locals may choose to flee rather than remain and fight a battle to maintain their town’s soul. That’s happened with good people I’ve known in Bozeman and I know it’s occurring in Jackson Hole, too.

I was thinking of these realities while writing from a campground in an unnamed place near Paradise Valley where I often go to fish. The Yellowstone River has been under angling restrictions due to low water flows and warm water temperatures that stress out trout and leave them more vulnerable to dying if hooked.

Over the years I don’t remember so many stretches of summers that have come under “hoot owl” restrictions that allow fishing only in morning and evening or rivers being closed to angling altogether.

As I sat by the river I unwittingly posted photos of this serene spot and was quickly reminded—scolded— by my tech savvy daughter to not share pictures that identify the places which fill me up, so as to not be guilty of “blowing up the spot” on social media. 

As she has made me aware, social media—the seemingly innocuous thing we do to share the joy of being in a particular place—can be a potent force in accelerating its undoing. 

I came to the spot to decompress. But then,1100 words into my column typed on my iPad I clumsily struck a key that deleted the entire text. While writing about the loss of our community I experience losing what is dear to me—and now, the words that try to articulate feelings I have about its destruction. 

Writers know about such an irretrievable moment when either in a fit of discontent or system malfunction, and with no tech support available, hours of focused writing disappears.

There’s a metaphor here and actually many ways to think and write about the grief many of us in Greater Yellowstone are experiencing that is hard to translate to newcomers unable to appreciate the subtle ways community character is being eroded.

One of the reasons is that few want to write or talk about it; it’s happening; we see it; we sense it; we feel it; we talk about it informally, usually in the forms of cathartic gripe sessions; we complain and friends share the same sentiments. We open up the local newspaper and tourism magazines and they are filled with real estate ads encouraging people to “buy the last lots now before they are gone.” 
We feel change; we talk about it informally, usually in the forms of cathartic gripe sessions; we complain and friends share the same sentiments. We open up the local newspaper and tourism magazines and they are filled with real estate ads encouraging people to “buy the last lots now before they are gone.” 
We encounter this stuff.  It bugs us but we don’t know what to do. And that’s the problem. The angst we are trying to express paralyzes us and it leaves many feeling numb. The worst thing we can do is be passive and hold it in. We need to raise a ruckus, so loud that the people we elect and the groups we expect to be stepping up do so are listening. As citizens we need to make those who voluntarily put themselves in positions to do something about it, either through civic leadership or advocacy as part of their organizations’ missions, do their jobs.

 It may force them to reflect on what their role is—is it to be boosters for growth which creates a set of community problems, or is it to protect the community from the negative impacts of growth most of their constituents probably do not welcome? I would argue the same question applies to federal agencies like the National Park Service and US Forest Service.

In psychology, in my world as a practicing therapist, I understand deflection as it exists in individuals, in organizations, including government land management agencies, and in communities. Rest assured, it’s common.

The first way we fight back is by speaking the truth in clear ways that express what we value about our towns.

This unbenign loss of our beloved countryside and wild places reflects layers of other kinds of loss that haunt our lives. Loss roams the territory of life like a jackal searching for prey. We neither know how it will grab our heart, nor do we want to think about it when it is ripped open.

Recently my wife and I suffered the loss of a 45-year friendship when our dear loved one succumbed to pancreatic cancer, years into a valiant dignified fight. Other forms of loss are less stark, creeping into our lives unrecognized. Loss is certain, but we are not fated to lose community, or landscape, though we become complicit to those kinds of losses when we allow the things we value to be lost through indifference. We avoid confrontation as our excuse to rationalize the argument that losses are unavoidable. 

It’s a lot like individual clients who claim that some events, involving their own conscious choice, are unpreventable. The paradox here is that sometimes we are forced to change our own destructive behavior in order to be healthy. Sometimes, we have to change our attitudes in order to confront unwanted changes that are happening in our community.

I ask you: Is it Bozeman, Montana’s certain destiny to become surrounded by unwanted mess of sprawl? Must Jackson Hole and Big Sky continue on their obvious trajectory leading them to become Vail, Colorado where a relentless focus on monetizing outdoor playtime experiences for adults has led to the suffocation of nature? 

Must Teton Valley, Idaho, which is now wrestling with plans proposed by developers to markedly expand Grand Targhee Ski Resort continue on a path of becoming a twin sister to Jackson Hole? Will the Livingston, Montana we love vanish in its denial that the spillover effects of poor planning in Bozeman and Gallatin County will eventually reach it like a freight train?
Must Teton Valley, Idaho, which is now wrestling with plans proposed by developers to markedly expand Grand Targhee Ski Resort continue on a path of becoming a twin sister to Jackson Hole? Will the Livingston, Montana we love vanish in its denial that the spillover effects of poor planning in Bozeman and Gallatin County will eventually reach it like a freight train?
Whenever you meet a person who has decided to up and leave Vail for Big Sky, Aspen for Jackson Hole, or Boulder, Colorado for Bozeman, ask them why?

In these cases, the only way to thwart the change that we see as inevitable is to change the old ways of thinking that are enabling the unwanted changes to happen. Our communities share a lot in common with people who need mental health or, at the very least, professionals to talk to.  

° ° ° °

So we treat change as if we are powerless, but if we want to make a difference we have to get used to making ourselves feel uncomfortable which most of us are hard wired to avoid. We must become activated and stop remaining passive; we must advocate for what we want and stop repressing our feelings that are based on love of community. That means making those in charge of allowing the negative changes to happen hear our discomfort. Yes, I know, easier said than done.

We really have no other option unless we don’t care, which I don’t accept, but  if our indifference is genuine, then I would argue we are in trouble or we’re living in the wrong place. 

All around there are signs of trouble: an old elm tree in a city park has its limbs snap under the weight of snow or in a wind event and soon the tree will be brought down but the city has taken no action to replace it—which is a demonstration of its inability to plan ahead to have old trees in another 50 years. A creek’s flow diminishes until its babble is silent, left to only a trickle and then we wonder why wild fish numbers are low. 

Private wells run dry.  A vacant lot where, for decades, kids built makeshift forts, sprouts a high-rise condo unit. The civility of a once-personable town dissolves into pseudo urban pushiness and more folks ostentatiously driving luxury cars honking their horns in towns where that kind of behavior used to be frowned upon.

My favorite gripe that has emerged during the pandemic is this: we addictively start logging onto Zillow and Trulia, deluding ourselves that change is tolerable as long as our real estate values continue to be inflated. We convince ourselves that more money, if we sell, will leave us feeling happier even as the community we knew vanishes; either that, or we’ll have enough to bail from town when the time is right. To this I say shame on us.

The impulsive cry of “don't’ tread on me” has created a reckless attitude of almost anything goes in these head-spinning times. A formerly purple state like Montana full of self-righteous liberals in Bozeman blemishes red yet the local progressives refuse to reflect on why most of Montana doesn’t see the world as they do.

An unattended friendship atrophies. A broken family limps into despair. An abundant ecosystem hemorrhages its wildness and as the land drains of wildlife and ranchers and farmers it is refilled with funhogs or retirees from somewhere else who will spend summers in Greater Yellowstone and winters in the desert or along the coast of Florida playing golf and pickle ball.

Loss is life. We are born to die. During our journey home to self-unimportance in the hereafter we are confounded with how now to live a joyful and meaningful life within a relationship, a family, a community, a state, a nation. We blindly adhere to playing our part in a script whose authorship we don’t know, which has a storyline that doesn’t really reflect our values or desires and choose not to protest.

The task of life is to reach beyond the absurd into the profound while maintaining a sense of equanimity and compassion. 

Humor helps as we realize the conceit of telling ourselves we have high virtue as we visit Zillow with our first cup of coffee. 

You know what really does help? Civility. Compassion for ourselves, for others and for other living things— even for vulnerable landscapes calling out to us. Compassion for self, however, does not mean letting ourselves off the hook; it means becoming more open to self-improvement.

Basically, it comes down to treating people and places in our lives as we want to be treated, which again is not to say you become so conflict averse, resistant to calling out what’s actually wrong that you sell out everything you once thought you stood for. 

That’s what is behind our addiction to Zillow, trying to convince ourselves that our taking from community and nature is always good—that attitudinal modification is only valid if it benefits our urges. 

Civic courage means standing up for what’s right against what’s wrong and to acknowledge that we need to be advocates fighting for our place. There are innumerable ways to protest the changes we know are not good for our communities and environment.

So I will leave you now with a few questions to consider?

Is this where artist expression plays a role, the kind that has become visible in organizations such as Mountain Time Arts? 

Is this the moment where a once bold and inspiring environmental movement becomes reborn?

Is this where we actually start holding those elected officials who preside over city and county commission meetings to account, demanding that they explain why they are enabling negative community changes to happen?

Is it a fait accompli that we must accept losing our community and the natural things we love most about Greater Yellowstone. 

Or is there another way?

know there is another way because the same kind of positive transformation in thinking that I’ve witnessed at the individual level so many times can be brought to scale but it is going to require that we have the courage to change; it means doing away with the tired and failing script of how we think about growth and prosperity, fulfillment and meaning. It means not searching for answers through Zillow but trying to hold onto things that no amount of money can replace.






Timothy Tate
About Timothy Tate

Community Psyche columnist Timothy J. Tate, who lives in Bozeman, Montana, has been a practicing professional psychotherapist for more than 30 years. For decades, he had an office on Main Street behind The Blue Door. He still works with clients downtown.
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