Energy & Environment

Keeping the Wild in the West

Cattle ranchers may have to think the unthinkable--zoning open space to keep developers from eating it all up.
by | October 2006

One windy evening this summer, Gallatin County Commissioner Joe Skinner drove his pickup 30 miles across Battle Ridge Pass to the farthest corner of the county. There, Skinner rolled up his shirt sleeves and visited with 28 ranchers in the one-room schoolhouse that serves Sedan, Montana, as the local community center.

Ordinarily, the conversation at such get-togethers would turn to the lingering drought or the ups and downs of beef prices. But Skinner, a retired cattleman himself, had a new kind of worry to talk about. With fellow commissioner Bill Murdoch and the county's planning staff, he gave a PowerPoint presentation--possibly the first ever projected on the pale green schoolhouse walls--with what was hardly a welcome message: The time has come to consider zoning the whole 2,600-square- mile county.

That is the only way, Skinner has reluctantly decided, for Gallatin County to preserve its wild landscapes and also save a treasured way of life in farm and ranching communities. Last year, the county won a Trust for Public Lands award for a $20 million open-space program that's saving 40 square miles from subdivision. But the county's three commissioners have come to believe that's not nearly enough to get a handle on growth that's overwhelming isolated communities and ruining wildlife habitats. "Even though you're not seeing a lot of development up here now, you will," Skinner told Sedan's ranching families. "We need to start doing things differently."

That's also the case in other rural places around the country. Americans are moving to out-of-the-way communities to live amid some of the nation's wildest landscapes. Meanwhile, state and local governments and nonprofit conservation groups have been funding open- space programs to protect vital tracts against development. And wealthy private citizens have taken steps to preserve land. In Gallatin County, for instance, media baron Ted Turner bought the Flying D Ranch and preserved it by donating conservation easements. But there's not enough money or private donations to keep piecemeal development from fragmenting fertile valleys and upland grasslands that wildlife relies on for winter range and passage.

Those lands lie primarily in family-owned farms and ranch headquarters. Managing how they're developed will be the province of county and municipal governments. It's local officials such as Joe Skinner and his colleagues who will decide where key biological corridors can be kept intact and whether rural communities get overrun with development.

Skinner joined the Gallatin County planning board 12 years ago to oppose regulating agricultural lands. But the county's population has doubled since 1980, reaching 80,000, and an additional 100,000 newcomers are expected over the next 30 years. Developers are lining up at the county courthouse in Bozeman with plans to scatter upscale subdivisions across farmlands and ridgelines. Already, around ranches such as Skinner's on Dry Creek, newcomers who buy 20-acre "ranchettes" complain when a neighbor's cattle get loose or their Cadillac Escalades get stuck on county roads.

Elected commissioner in 2004, Skinner was convinced that actively controlling growth was the only way to stem the losses. The three Gallatin commissioners want to concentrate development through county- wide zoning rules. They're proposing to give rural landowners transferable development rights they can sell to high-density developments close to Bozeman. They're also considering a county-run center that would help farmers and ranchers figure out how to raise cash but still keep most of their land in agriculture. Gallatin County's conservative Republican state legislators are staunch backers of property-rights measures, including a ballot initiative that Skinner says would stop growth-management efforts in their tracks. Skinner and Murdoch are Republicans themselves, but in rural Montana, regulating land use traditionally has been about as popular as gun control.

As a Sedan cattleman told Skinner, "I don't want anybody telling me what to do with my land, but I don't want it developed either." At the schoolhouse, ranch men and women listened attentively as county officials outlined the options. Afterward, almost everybody stayed to eat apple and cherry pie and talk things over with the commissioners. "This is the way things used to be at Dry Creek," Skinner said that night. If the Gallatin commissioners and other local officials can follow through, maybe places such as Sedan can stay that way forever.

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