- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 3, 2001

BOZEMAN, Montana Paulette Neshiem and her husband came looking for solitude in the 1990s and built their dream home on the wind-swept bench of a former ranch.

Mark Haggerty bought a house in downtown Bozeman because he loves the small-town charm and the fact he cannot get through more than 10 pages of a book during an afternoon at the coffee shop with all the people stopping to chat.

Jason Ayscue came for untouched powder and short lift lines at Bridger Bowl Ski Area.

Grizzly bears still cleaved to southwestern Montana's mountains and streams, relatively free from run-ins with humans who had chased them out of most other corners of the West.

Each of them gave up a little bit of their Montana as the population of the 44th-largest state shot up during the last decade.

Montana grew by 12.9 percent to 905,000 in the 1990s. That was good for a 20th ranking in percentage growth, most of it focused here and throughout western Montana's mountain valleys rather than the state's vast eastern plains.

Bozeman remains one of the West's best examples of a town where hippies, thrill-seekers and cowboys still blend effortlessly. Montana Ale Works, one of the region's ubiquitous brewery/pubs, is just across the parking lot from the Nutrena Feeds silo.

Now wealthy migrants and owners of second homes are entering the mix and stretching a formerly close-knit community to the horizons.

With roughly 25,000 residents, Bozeman is Gallatin County's population center. But the real changes are taking place in rural subdivisions. A Sierra Club report counted 4,000 new water wells from 1982 to 1997, and more than 700 subdivisions approved in the 1990s.

Mr. Haggerty, a private-lands specialist with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, said he hopes the national trend toward recolonizing cities and preserving open space catches on even here, where most people want elbow room.

It is a matter of grave importance to the coalition, which is working to protect the Gallatin Valley's elk herds and other wildlife from the huge homes that are spreading across vital winter habitat.

"You're not going to stop all rural development," Mr. Haggerty said. "People are always going to want that. But there is a big trend nationwide for back to the city, and we're even seeing that in Bozeman."

Mrs. Neshiem is an example of why that's a tall order, but she also stands as a preservation convert. She is working with her neighbors and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition to keep ranches from being carved up.

"I said, 'I want 400 acres. I don't want to see a neighbor. I don't want to see a car. Give me peace,' " she recalled of her home search after leaving the East Coast.

It worked, for a while. She got 55 acres in a hillside alfalfa field.

But now the next ranch over is proposed for development. She fears that if Gallatin County allows the planned golf course and luxury homes, development will stretch toward the wilderness.

Mrs. Neshiem has won support from neighboring ranchers who fear residential development could hem them in and swallow up their well water. She worries that most newcomers never even walk their land, but buy it only for the view.

The result: high land prices, even on steep slopes that are difficult to build on.

Gallatin County still could block the next-door development, called Day Ranch. Like most Montana counties, it does not have countywide zoning, but it does have a policy discouraging "leapfrog" development that crops up far from existing infrastructure. A proposed county master plan would force developers to set aside most of their land as open space if they are building in critical wildlife habitat.

It is the sort of regulation the Bozeman-based Political Economy Research Center calls draconian. The research group, which seeks market solutions to environmental problems, says Montanans should be willing to pay if they want preservation.

Senior associate Jane Shaw said the county's program could force landowners to preserve 20 times the acreage they develop if they are building outside designated growth zones. "It's highly questionable whether it's legal," she said. "It creates winners and losers by government fiat."

People who want to preserve the range should pay for it, either individually or through groups that buy conservation easements, she said. "I don't think that a few legislators or a few city commissioners know better than other people how the city ought to grow. I'd rather put more trust in the Nature Conservancy or the Montana Land Reliance to decide which areas should be preserved."

That's one approach environmentalists favor, though they argue it isn't enough. Mr. Haggerty points to Triple Tree, a wealthy housing development southeast of Bozeman, where residents were willing to pay to protect the open views across a neighboring ranch. Problem is, Triple Tree itself sits on prime elk winter habitat.

"There is no single solution," Mr. Haggerty said. "It's clear that the market isn't going to protect some of the things we want protected because you can't put a value on them. People can't own wildlife, but people care about it."

• Distributed by Scripps Howard

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