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Paradise lost


This isn’t a political post although most issues have political ramifications and all politics are local. The location this time is the resort town of Big Sky, Montana, or more so, the Gallatin Canyon.

It’s getting crazy there.

The Gallatin River, which flows north out of Yellowstone Park to Three Forks, is bumper-to-bumper rafts on a sunny summer day. Add kayaks and canoes and fisherpeople at every bend in the river, and you have one congested waterway.

Are there really any fish left? Despite catch-and-release, the traumatized trout must be cowering in the pools from all the water traffic. Most folks take out before the river reaches Gallatin Gateway, but that’s because the farms and ranches suck enough irrigation water out of the lower Gallatin that it becomes more like a stream.

River traffic seems tame, though, compared to the circus on Highway 191 between Four Corners and West Yellowstone. It’s packed with semi-trucks, and SUVs being pulled behind luxury RVs that are as long as the semis. There are gravel and cement trucks and service vehicles, and tourists crawling along the road, and Big Sky, Moonlight, Spanish Peaks and Yellowstone Club residents. And worker bees – many, many worker bees – coming from Belgrade and environs because they can’t afford housing at Big Sky.

I’ve heard that 191 is the best route between Salt Lake City and I-90 for semis – more direct than I-15 and without Monida Pass. It also has one of the highest highway fatality rates in Montana.

Montana’s highway department has built a series of turnouts for slow moving vehicles. They are used on occasion, when they aren’t filled with the cars of anglers, rafters and folks who just want to frolic at the water’s edge.

My grandfather bought a small cabin on the Gallatin River in 1960 before there was any Big Sky. My mother would buy me some comic books and put my on the North Coast Limited in Billings and Grandpa would pick me up at the station in Bozeman. I’d spend a month or more at the cabin — exploring, fishing and shooting my .22. That was 50 years ago.

My how times change.

The Big Sky Chamber of Commerce, realtors and many tourist-related businesses must be ecstatic. For the old timers, like myself, it’s perverse. The Gallatin is one of my favorite places in the world and it’s going to hell and I believe it’s getting tougher for average Montanans find a place to stay and spend time there.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s happened and is happening in Montana’s special places. The Paradise and Bitterroot Valleys come to mind but being valleys and not a canyon, they absorb growth somewhat better.

It would be sweet if there was some sort of sustainability model for Montana’s premier properties – carrying capacity, planning for growth, housing for workers, transportation considerations – but alas, I have yet to see it.

Instead it’s boom-and-bust cycles: unsustainable building and crowding and money-making followed by a bust which hurts a lot of people but usually not those who exploited these places to begin with.

The political mood in Congress and the administration is away from public lands and parks and wilderness and monuments. What I’m seeing from the crowds in Montana is we can’t have too many of these public places. It isn’t going to get any better in the future unless there are fewer people on the planet, which is doubtful, or there’s a sustainable model in place to handle growth, which also doesn’t seem to be a leadership priority. It’s important that Montana families have continued access to these wonderful spots. Some forward thinking would be nice.

This turned into a political post after all.









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About the author

Pete Talbot

'Papa’ Pete Talbot is first and foremost a grandfather to five wonderful grandchildren. Like many Montanans, he has held numerous jobs over the years: film and video producer, a partner in a marketing and advertising firm, a builder and a property manager. He’s served on local and statewide Democratic Party boards. Pete has also been blogging at various sites for over a decade. Ping-pong and skiing are his favorite diversions. He enjoys bourbon.


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  • Pete! We had an almost identical childhood! North Coast Limited? check Cabin on the Gallatin BBS? check … except the one I stayed belonged to my aunt and uncle … my cousins grandad had the cabin next door down the hill on the river. No Big Sky just the Chapel and Sunday morning services staring out the window … honestly can’t remember one single sermon. Where was your grandpa’s cabin? We stayed on the ‘loop’ near the Lava Lake trailhead and ya … No One ever fished that river in those days they were all over chasing the really Big fish on the Madison. Cheers!

    • My wife and I were married at Soldiers Chapel 33 years ago, 20 years after my first stay at Grandpa’s place. My grandparents and other relatives have headstones behind the chapel, in the shadow of Lone Peak. The cabin is six miles south of the Big Sky spur road, just past Buck Creek. Cheers, Kevin.

  • I remember Earth Day 1972 at my high school in Madison County and how everyone, almost to a person, was concerned about our future in regards to the possibility of Big Sky. Now, after having left Montana not long after that and happily returning 25 years ago (and for most of those years, involved in county government) I have seen the changes it brought, first hand, too. The Madison side is less affected, of course, but, make no mistake, Big Sky’s impact on Madison County–in revenue alone–has been huge. I grew up recreating in the beautiful Tobacco Roots, the Upper Ruby, the Gravellies, and I have thought, many, many times, “What if? “. I so understand your grief at the loss of your favorite place. It’s impossible to put Genie back in his lamp, but we can, and in many cases, have, learned from mistakes made over the last 45 years. We all understand why so many people love this part of the world. Who can blame them? We just have to make sure that our “favorite places” continue to be protected.

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