Cowboys and Realtors

The mythical West lives on - even as the wealthy, the leisured and the retired buy into Big Sky Country. An essay

St. Mary Lake in Glacier National Park
St. Mary Lake in Glacier National Park Wikimedia Commons

Grizzlies in northwest Montana are being shot and possibly poisoned at an unprecedented pace since the bears were listed more than three decades ago as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The carcass count—22 killed in the past two years, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—worries biologists in charge of the grizzlies' otherwise successful comeback. Federal investigators have suspects in the killings but have filed no charges, and they have struggled to find local residents willing to help their investigations. Yet what is most revealing about this serial slaughter is what it says about the West's abiding inability to understand itself.

Permit me to explain.

The killing is taking place in and around the splendidly scenic Flathead Valley, where the chasm between facts and myths of life in the West continues to widen.

Flathead County—a gateway to Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness—has boomed over the past 15 years, with 39 percent population growth, rising incomes and falling unemployment. The county is emblematic of most of western Montana and the rest of the Rocky Mountain West, where a rapidly growing population is, on average, richer, better educated and more luxuriously housed than any previous generation. Retirement income, most of it belonging to newcomers, is the primary engine behind this economic transformation. For Montana as a whole, it amounts to about three times the combined income from farming, ranching, logging, and oil and gas exploration, according to Ray Rasker of Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit research group in Bozeman.

At the same time, jobs in logging are fading fast. In the Flathead, the disappearance of these physically demanding jobs—tied by history and myth to the very core of what it means to be a self-made Montanan—has coincided with the closure of roads in federal forests to protect grizzlies. Many longtime residents of the Flathead have been quick to link coincidence with causality. Fred Hodgeboom, president of Montanans for Multiple Use, a local group that wants more access to federal land, told federal game managers late last year that grizzly-driven resentment may well be behind the rising number of dead bears.

But if angry ex-loggers or ex-miners in northwest Montana are indeed killing grizzlies—and federal investigators, so far, say they have found no hard evidence of this—they are attacking a mainstay of the region's new recreation-based economy.

That economy has triggered explosive growth in the local housing industry, providing good jobs to blue-collar workers who in previous decades worked in the woods or the mines. Many of the palatial new homes built in the valley in the past two decades are high up in grizzly country. The bears, whose numbers have rebounded impressively over the past 30 years (recent poaching notwithstanding), are commercially crucial symbols for a landscape that is marketed as healthful and wild. The word "grizzly," as wrapped into company logos, letterheads and ad campaigns, helps business owners in the Flathead Valley sell everything from interior decoration to welding supplies. To manage what can be a dicey proximity of man and beast (grizzlies do occasionally attack and even eat people), the state of Montana employs a game warden in the area whose full-time job is to teach the rising number of people and grizzlies how to get along.

Like many Westerners, Montanans tend not to understand themselves, their landscape or their politics—at least not from an economic point of view.

"They look in a rearview mirror," says Thomas Power, chairman of the economics department at the University of Montana in Missoula. "Views of the economy are tied to what people learned from their parents and their grandparents. It even affects the new population. Those folks buy into an imagined fantasy of what life in Big Sky Country is all about. That fantasy is part of their reason for living in the West."

Brian Schweitzer, a mint farmer who in 2004 was elected Montana’s first Democratic governor in 16 years, told me that Western politicians have to pay careful attention to the disconnect between economic reality and the fantasies floating around inside the heads of voters, especially male voters. He said that two statewide elections (he lost a race in 2000 against Republican Senator Conrad Burns) taught him the importance of those fantasies, even while reaching beyond them.

In his second, successful race, Schweitzer did most of his TV campaign ads sitting on a horse or holding a gun or both. He did it, he said, so his "visuals" would show that he understands Montana. "Hell, I can be on a horse and talk about health care," he said. What a Western politician cannot do, if he or she wants to get elected, is scold voters about the gap that exists between their imagined West and the place where they actually live. "Look," Schweitzer told me, "if I stand in front of voters and tell them, 'Everything you thought you knew about Montana's economy is wrong,' then who in the hell is going to vote for someone like that?"

Historian Richard White has written that the West is the most powerfully imagined part of the United States. And the American imagination has a chronic history of getting things wrong when it comes to understanding the character of Western land.

An example of how wrong that understanding can be occurred in eastern Montana between 1910 and 1918. More than 100,000 sodbusters (including my great-grandfather Elvin Eldorado Harden) were lured to free federal land by railroad advertisements and their own romantic notions of Manifest Destiny. To these newly arriving farmers, the east side of Montana looked like a good place to settle—until plows stripped away the prairie grass to reveal gumbo and alkali soil. After a few years of freakishly adequate rains greened freshly cultivated acres, annual rainfall on the Northern Plains returned to normal, which proved chronically insufficient for row crops. Hunger quickly trumped imagination as crops failed and livestock starved. My great-grandfather died of a bowel obstruction on his struggling homestead, and his seven sons and two daughters scattered. Eastern Montana—like other parts of the Northern Plains—has been losing population ever since.

The land itself engenders wrongheadedness about the West. It looks endless and inviting. The West excites the eye with a "hard clarity" and stirs up notions of "unlimited opportunity," wrote Wallace Stegner, who spent much of his life examining the fool's gold of mythology that is to be found west of the 100th meridian, where, Stegner wrote, "aridity, and aridity alone, make the various Wests one."

Fertile open space without end is an optical and metaphysical illusion that resonates throughout popular culture. It famously infected Cole Porter, a Western romantic from Indiana who composed for Broadway. He was the one who wrote:

Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above,
Don’t fence me in....
I want to ride to the ridge where the West commences
Gaze at the moon till I lose my senses
Can’t look at hobbles and I can’t stand fences
Don’t fence me in.

Sadly, mountains, extensive federal ownership and—above all—a chronic lack of water make much of the land under starry skies uninhabitable. Census figures show that the West is the most rural part of the country, in terms of land use, but it is by far the most densely urban, in terms of where people live. Los Angeles is growing denser each year, as newly urbanized land is occupied by about nine people per acre, nearly four times the density of newly developed land in New York.

And so it goes across the entire West, with San Diego denser than Philadelphia, Las Vegas more tightly packed than Chicago, Denver more crowded than Detroit. Twelve of the country's 15 most densely populated urban areas are in the West. New residents move to land in these cities at triple the per-acre density of any other part of the country. In Charlotte or Atlanta or Nashville, high-end houses typically come with several acres; in San Francisco, Portland and Phoenix, expensive new houses tend to be built within feet of one another.

These facts have been widely studied, written about and discussed at conferences by federal and university demographers. But they have done little to rattle the mythology of the West. "There is no denying that these density patterns don't fit with common perception," says Marc Perry, chief of the population distribution branch at the Census.

The grand master of winning votes by milking the myth was Ronald Reagan. As a candidate for governor of California, he took Western images of rugged individualism and, as historian White has written, married them to "the resentment and feelings of victimization” that Western whites felt toward teeming cities full of blacks, Hispanics, gays, criminals and liberals. Reagan's mythmaking was so universally appealing (it is not just Westerners who are hoodwinked by myths) that it helped lift him to two terms as president.

Over time, of course, reality has a nasty way of asserting itself. Just as the starry-eyed sodbusters of my great-grandfather's generation were forced to give up on eastern Montana, so have voters in Western states been compelled by pollution, congestion and assorted urban ills to acknowledge a few facts of life. In California, Washington and Oregon they regularly elect politicians who promise to clean up the air, unclog the highways and regulate big business—and who don’t have to sit on a horse while doing so.

But in Montana and elsewhere in the Rocky Mountain West, mythology still calls a lot of shots.

Consider those federally protected grizzlies in the Flathead Valley, dying in a cultural warp zone, apparent victims of Montanans who cannot square the rise of a prosperous new economy with the fall of a lifestyle sanctified by stirring stories of self-reliance. Federal investigators told me that whoever has been killing the bears is probably known to his neighbors, probably even brags to his neighbors. But those neighbors, investigators say, are not talking. It is not the way of the West.

Blaine Harden, a Seattle-based reporter for the Washington Post, wrote A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia.

"Don’t Fence Me In" by Cole Porter © 1944 (renewed) Warner Bros. Inc.  

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