Our New Year challenge: Keeping Montana Montana

January 6, 2023 4:13 am

An old map of the state of Montana in the USA scanned from a XIX century original .

Unlike in normal years, the 2023 Legislature finds itself wallowing in a fiscal surplus caused by massive infusions of money from the federal government that so many of the incoming legislators continually denigrate. But of course they’re not giving the federal money back.

Instead, the incoming Republican supermajority leans toward massive development and urbanization of our state. This year the challenge won’t be trying to find the fiscal resources to meet our state’s many very real needs, but simply trying to keep Montana Montana — and not New Jersey, Maryland, Colorado, Utah, or Texas.

Granted, there are many versions of what “Montana” means. That’s no surprise given the vast diversity of Montana’s enormous landscapes. If you live in the western side of the state your concept of Montana is likely shaped by the snow-capped, sky-piercing mountains on the horizon. Here huge expanses of forested lands flow down to wide valleys with beautiful rivers and streams internationally famous for their abundant wild trout that remain capable of natural reproduction instead of being dumped from a hatchery truck.

But despite the wonders of the western mountains and wildlands, the vast Great Plains cover huge expanses of the state with their own special beauty. Here the vision of Montana stretches the imagination under the never-ending sky. Rolling hills where herds of antelope still roam gently turn to fertile plains and agriculture defines the lifestyle with golden fields of grains, lush green grasses, and cattle in all directions. Here the stars shine unimpeded by city lights and the silence of the land is not broken by wailing sirens and urban noise.

When it comes to our cities, far and away the most common structure is the single-family home. That’s no surprise considering they were built and bought by Montanans living on modest incomes. Until recently, Montana’s citizens lived on per capita incomes in the bottom 10 states nationally. McMansions, like those being built by wealthy in-migrants, were exceedingly rare and primarily popped up in places where the Copper Kings or successful gold miners built their personal castles to flaunt their wealth and importance.

Comes now Gov. Greg Gianforte’s housing task force recommendations, and they are anything but accepting of what has been the norm. No, the development-heavy conclusions reject single-family homes in favor of mandatory four-story multi-family dwellings, no setbacks from property lines, and a wholesale overhaul of the regulatory system that has, for all these years, kept Montana a great place to live and raise a family and where we can still see the sun and sky — not the walls of the urban canyons these get-rich-quick developers seem so willing to embrace while hiding behind the rubric of “affordable housing.”
It’s difficult to understand why these people who claim to love Montana want to change it so radically, so quickly, and with the potential for so many unintended consequences they seem to simply brush aside. It’s even more difficult to accept when one considers the problems over-development has already caused, not the least of which are polluted ground and surface waters, and wells running dry as groundwater levels drop from increasing unregulated withdrawals sucking ever more water from a finite source.
Although the New Year should bring the promise of the chance for a better future, it appears 2023 may in fact be a fight to simply preserve the state the vast majority of Montanans know, love, and appreciate. Given the pledges to attack the Constitution, gut regulations, and kow-tow to wealthy developers, there’s every reason to believe the real battle this year will be to simply keep Montana Montana — and not sell it out to the highest bidder.

George Ochenski is a longtime Helena resident, an environmental activist and Montana’s longest running columnist.

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