Try to separate fact from fiction in a recent Los Angeles Times article about Gallatin County:

County employees packing heat in the courthouse? Six feet of snow in the valley? Brown bears playing peek-a-boo in the kitchen window? A Code of the West pamphlet to help greenhorns adapt to life in Montana?

Shoot-outs, bad weather and marauding bruins are the work of fantasy. They don’t happen often enough to be legitimate characteristics of life in Big Sky Country. But when an L.A. reporter wants to make a story come alive it’s only natural to dig for details that will speak to a breed of readers weaned on Hollywood movies.

But the Code of the West is for real. Published by Gallatin County, the 20-page pamphlet warns newcomers that they have to get their trash to the dump themselves, that snow plows may block their driveway with berms in the winter, and that fences are meant to keep livestock out, not in.

The booklet apparently overlooks tips about where to buy bronze statutes of scantily clad Native American women (perfect for the den in that new 10,000 square foot “cabin”). And it makes no mention of ranch dressing’s 1,001 uses (use number 745 “excellent when served warm in a steaming mug”).

•••

Thirty years ago this month, the people of Montana won approval from Congress for the 240,000-acre Scapegoat Wilderness. It was the first citizen-initiated wilderness in the nation.

Over the next 10 years the patchwork of wilderness areas draped across the Rocky Mountains in the middle of the state grew to 1.5 million acres. That protected the continental divide between Rogers Pass to the south and Marias Pass to the north from development, mining and motorized vehicles.

Yes, the 1970s were a good decade for Montana wilderness. Conservation-friendly senators Mike Mansfield and Lee Metcalf were still in office. And activists Cecil Garland and Don Aldrich were in charge of the Montana Wilderness Association and the Montana Wildlife Federation, respectively.

But the quarter century since then hasn’t been as kind. Aldrich, Mansfield and Metcalf have since departed for that great wilderness area in the sky, Garland has moved to Utah, and the people of Montana have let natural gas interests and those who prefer to drive instead of hike or ski stall the movement.

But wilderness historian Bill Cunningham believes the lessons of the Scapegoat should not be forsaken. The writer and outfitter from Choteau would like to see Montanans support conservation-friendly politicians and call for more protection in the area.

“It’s high time we add another 1 million acres of federal wildland that qualify as wilderness,” Cunningham says. “We’ve hit the nadir on this. Politics are holding it up. But the story of the Scapegoat is a story of hope and optimism.”

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