Brave New Montana 

Citizenship training for newbies

The much-predicted influx of moneyed sojourners seeking the solace of Montana is well underway. But with the influx comes a host of new problems and challenges. Unlike the polluting industries of the last century, many of the newcomers are here not to dig wealth from the ground, but because Montana is one of the last places in the nation where you can still experience a clean environment, natural landscapes spreading across the horizon in all directions, and functioning ecosystems where native species still thrive. Only one problem: gated communities, armed guards and electrified fences really don’t fit into this picture, now do they? So what are we going to do about it?

In the Old Montana, people came West seeking their fortunes through farming or ranching—or, lacking that, hoping to at least find a job in the mines, mills or woods that would allow them to pay their bills and raise their families. While many failed, many others managed to get by and some even found the fortunes they were seeking. But in most cases, the migrants flocked to the jobs they hoped were waiting.

That is no longer the case. Now, as studies by any number of respected demographers and socio-economists show, many of the immigrants to the New Montana could care less about what kind of jobs exist here. Many bring money they have already earned or inherited and simply start new businesses in their chosen chunk of the Big Sky. Others, thanks to the Internet, bring their professions and businesses with them and enjoy Montana’s high quality of life while continuing to earn wages much more in line with national averages than those they would likely find in the Montana job market.

So far, other than dealing with the problems that sprawl is producing in our rapidly growing, increasingly urbanized areas, such as Bozeman, Missoula, the Flathead and the Bitterroot, we are finding ways to live with the new residents—especially those who respect Montana’s resources and follow our rules.

The thornier problems are posed by a new class of very wealthy non-resident landowners—those who do not decide to become Montana residents, but merely want to own large estates here. On their part, there appears to be a belief that simply because you are rich and own large parcels of land, somehow or another you are in a privileged group that need not follow Montana’s laws or treat its citizens and wildlife with respect.

Headlining this exclusive but growing group are Ted Turner and Jim Cox Kennedy. These guys are in the spotlight for a variety of questionable practices that, oddly enough, are often hidden behind the façade of “conservation.” But in reality, they have come to Montana to be masters of their own fiefdoms, where they can escape the pressures of the “outside” world, manipulate natural systems to their own liking, and even break laws just to keep the public out.

“In some cases we have seen not your standard three- or four-strand barbed wire fence but instead fences that are six to eight strands and six feet high and tightly strung, by design to keep sportsmen out,” said Jim Kropp, Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ chief of Law Enforcement in a Great Falls Tribune article this week. What Kropp is talking about are so-called “death fences” that have both higher and lower strands than traditional stock fences. And while those fences do a bang-up job of keeping game animals in and citizens out, they also reap a horrendous toll on moose, deer, elk and antelope that get caught, break legs and perish trying to go under or over the deadly barriers.

Another fine example is the blatant disregard for the law and Montana traditions exhibited by those who run fences right up to public bridges in an obvious attempt to exclude the public from public waterways. Last Sunday’s Stream Access Float on the Ruby River provided undeniable evidence of both barbed wire and electric fencing strung on public right-of-ways around bridges where the public could—and should—be able to access the river legally.

Highway right-of-ways are public property. It is no more legal to fence off the public right-of-way—especially when the object of the fencing is obviously to exclude the public—than it would be to fence off a public park.

So how come certain moneyed individuals figure they can get away with these actions? The bigger question, which was presaged by last weekend’s access float, is: “What are Montanans going to do about it?”

In this regard, I have two very serious words for those who would flaunt Montana’s long traditions of respecting wildlife and the right of the public to access our own resources: CITIZENS INITIATIVE.

We have a very active initiative process here in Montana that has been further strengthened by a recent Supreme Court decision overturning legislative attempts to weaken it. Citizens’ initiatives have been responsible for overturning taxes, banning new cyanide mining and prohibiting the despicable practice of “game farming,” where animals are “hunted” in fenced enclosures.

Just how hard would it be to get an initiative on the ballot that prohibits deadly fencing practices, fencing public rights-of-way, or blocking public access to waterways? Given the overwhelming percentage of Montanans who float, fish, hunt and hike, I have a hunch the Turners and Kennedys would quickly find themselves on the losing end of the vote.

The alternative, of course, is much more pleasant. It’s fine and dandy to have people come here who appreciate Montana for its many wonderful attributes, but listen up. We’ll be just as friendly and welcoming in the New Montana as our Old Montana reputation promises, provided you do two things: respect our resources and follow our rules. It’s that simple. Barring that, we’ll see you at the voting booth—and Bubba, you gonna lose.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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