Under Montana's Big Sky

The landscape has changed little since the Lewis and Clark expedition came through in 1805, but the struggle between man and nature has a modern, political aspect today

THE last best place," they call it - "Big Sky" country, where much of the vast landscape has changed little since the Lewis and Clark expedition came through in 1805. Some of the best trout streams in the world. Millions of acres of forest and rugged mountains in the western part of the state, wheat fields and cattle ranches to the east.

Animals that have been crowded out of other places still find a home here: grizzly bears, wolves, eagles.

Montana is the fourth-largest state in the union, but just 44th in terms of population - and most of those are "crowded" into just 7 of 56 counties. There are so few people, in fact, that the state actually lost one of its two seats in the House of Representatives in the 1990 census. There still are many one-room schoolhouses around the state.

The place names evoke both closeness to nature and the state's traditional western past. Kids in Missoula go to the Rattlesnake Middle School. The main street in Helena, the state capitol, is called Last Chance Gulch. When the University of Montana nicknames itself the Grizzlies, it's because the great bear can be found here.

Even in the relatively urban areas, one is never far from nature. Judy Barker lives in a wooded housing development at the outskirts of Missoula. What a nice neighborhood for her two small children to play in, a visitor remarks. "I can't let them play in the woods alone," she says. "We get bears through here and there's been a mountain lion."

Except for a few months in midsummer, snow can be part of the weather just about anytime. By the middle of October, the cottonwoods have turned yellow. Woodstoves are fired up to take away the morning chill. Families are stocking up on heavy boots and warm jackets.

The struggle between man and nature has a modern, political aspect now. Grizzlies, whose habitat is threatened by logging, are being fitted with radio collars and tracked by satellite to check their survival. Wolf packs have been spotted again, apparently trying to reclaim territory not too far from towns.

This makes ranchers uneasy. The ranchers' champion in Congress is a Republican running against a more moderate Democrat for Montana's lone congressional seat. His reelection campaign is locally characterized with the slogan: "No Wolves, No Wilderness, No Welfare."

ALTHOUGH not against all wilderness, he was against the bill that would have increased the amount of land being protected. After more than a decade of congressional maneuvering, Montana still does not have a statewide wilderness bill.

The state is changing, though. Folks from California and elsewhere are moving in, buying up property, more interested in preserving the environment than exploiting it. Ted Turner and Jane Fonda have a huge ranch where bison have replaced cattle and hunters are no longer welcome.

Visitors from Japan and elsewhere have made tourism the No. 2 industry here. They come to see the "big" sky, to feel the peace and permanence of a place where nature is just off the back step, where the hold of civilization and settlement still seem largely tentative. It is a place to find, as western writer Gretel Ehrlich puts it, "the solace of open spaces."

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