A River of Shit Runs Through It

Gallatin River, near Big Sky. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

The latest national “news” that extremely wealthy people are buying up Montana and the West was about as revealing to Montanans as telling us the sky is blue. We know, we live here, and we see it every day. While many laud the benefits of such economic activity, the very real consequences are stacking up – and nowhere is it more obvious than in the destruction of the world-famous Gallatin River that just turned neon green downstream from Big Sky for the fifth year in a row.

It was way back in 1970 that Chet Huntley, a Montana native and famous anchor for the national Huntley-Brinkley Report, went all in on the development of a high-end resort on Lone Mountain, located in the headwaters of the West Fork of the Gallatin River. Huntley was the trusted “voice of America,” but had retired from the stress of the nightly newscast saying he wanted to “get these damn deadlines off my neck.”

Old Chet told us Montanans who were present at the pre-construction public meetings that Big Sky was going to be a “place for regular Montanans to go skiing.” But Chet was lying through his teeth. That was evident to anyone looking at who was putting up the money for the venture. That would be the Chrysler Realty Corp., General Electric Pension Fund, Burlington Northern, and the Montana Power Co. to name a few. And not only did they get everything they wanted, Chet even “cajoled two Montana governors, obtaining permission for the resort to make use of the state’s nickname, Big Sky.”

At that time, there was virtually no development except for a couple of dude ranches between Four Corners and West Yellowstone. From its headwaters in Yellowstone National Park the Gallatin ran so clean and pure you could drink a handful of cold and delicious water right out of the stream while flyfishing without a worry that it might be polluted.

Many Montanans voiced very real concerns at the beginning of the Big Sky venture about just how many roads, homes, hotels, golf courses, shops, and ski areas you could cram into a narrow, rock-lined canyon without doing serious damage to the area’s lands, waters, and wildlife. In those days, as Montanans with good memories will recall, wildlife in the canyon was abundant, with herds of big horn sheep and moose often wandering down to the river.

Turns out Montanans were fully justified in their concerns for the river and lands they loved. We were, of course, told that our regulatory agencies wouldn’t allow damaging development…and like Chet Huntley, they, too, lied through their teeth. There was no zoning, there were no regulations on how many septic systems could be installed and the regulations that did exist were routinely weakened by developers seeking the enormous profits such a high-end development on Lone Mountain — situated in pristine wilderness — would generate.

Fifty years later we get today’s tragic situation of a neon green Gallatin River directly downstream from the Big Sky, Yellowstone Club, Moonlight Basin and Spanish Peaks developments. Thirty years ago the famous flyfishing footage used in “A River Runs Through It” was filmed on the Gallatin — but nowadays it’s more like “a river of sewage runs through it.”

It’s ironic that while Huntley was pushing Big Sky Montanans were adopting a new Constitution stating: “The state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations” — a mandate Montana has sadly failed to meet in the past and continues to shirk in the present as the Gallatin turns neon green.

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Missoulian, where this essay originally appeared.