Overdevelopment Threatens Montana Quality of Life

It’s becoming more clear every day that the endless push to develop Montana in every way possible is conflicting with and denigrating the very reason most Montanans live here – for our quality of life. Despite society’s delusions about “having it all” the simple truth is you can’t have it both ways.

It’s not often you see Republicans whine about the negative effects on Montanans of too much development. But when Libby Rep. Steve Gunderson brought his HB 440 to limit the reservation system for Montana state parks Republican Dave Galt, former director of Montana Department of Transportation, and former executive director of the Montana Petroleum Association, told a sobering tale.

Galt testified that he and his wife tried to find a time slot to camp in one of the many state parks between Seeley Lake and Swan Lake “and there’s not a reservable camp spot between those two places from May to August.” As for the hope that Gunderson’s bill would open up our state parks to Montanans, Galt summed it up saying: “…things have changed, and I think this is a good idea.”

Things have changed alright – and you can hear it from just about any long-time Montanan you talk to these days. When it comes to state parks, overdevelopment boomed when Democrat Governor Brian Schweitzer brought his old college roommate Joe Maurier up from Colorado to run Montana’s state parks division. Maurier had been running Colorado’s state parks, which are very highly developed, and apparently Schweitzer thought Montana should emulate that commerce-heavy model.

It’s safe to say his Colorado pal wasn’t very familiar with Montana’s laws and policies governing state parks. But in the ’90s the Legislature actually decided to take steps to curtail overdevelopment of state parks with a number of prescient bills. The state parks and fishing access site development act required a pre-development report on “the desires of the public,” “long range maintenance” costs, and “the capacity of the site for development.”

They also put a number of parks and fishing access sites in “primitive” status to remain largely undeveloped. The logic was that the more developed state parks were the more they cost up-front, the more expensive they were to maintain, and the more likely they were to be vandalized – resulting in ever-increasing costs to Montanans to use their own state parks.

Due to increasing problems arising from lack of maintenance – and subsequent pushback to acquiring more parks and fishing access sites – the Legislature also passed the Good Neighbor Policy which clearly states: “In order to implement the good neighbor policy expeditiously, the Legislature finds it necessary to require the Department of Fish, Wildlife, & Parks to place maintenance as a priority over additional development at all state parks and fishing access sites.”

Unfortunately, those laws have been pretty much ignored, resulting in Colorado-style electrification and development of many state parks. All Colorado state parks require reservations and now Montana’s online reservation system gives non-residents the opportunity to fill the parks long before they set foot in the state. As Galt’s testimony illustrated, that hasn’t worked out so well for local Montanans.

It doesn’t take a genius to know the West is “settled” and it’s time for the misnomer of “progress” through development to take a break. Our legislators must remember they represent Montanans, not those who want to move here or visit here. It was Montanans who voted them into office and it is Montanans to whom they owe their allegiance to protect our quality of life. As is increasingly obvious, we can’t have it both ways.

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