Rural Montana Rewrites Myth of Yuppie Sprawl


Those darned Californians.

Everywhere that Gene Townsend looked, the mayor of Three Forks, Mont., was convinced that refugees from California were colonizing his community, buying up every available acre of real estate, and laying cultural siege like some modern-day Genghis Khans.

Even down at the greasy-spoon restaurant on Main Street, where regulars take their coffee black, newcomers dressed in Synchilla jackets and lycra shorts were recently spotted demanding espressos and caf au laits.

For Mr. Townsend, a manager at a local talc plant, the circumstantial evidence suggested that his rural burg, located along the headwaters of the Missouri River, was undergoing the dreaded process of "Californization."

It stems from a development angst felt in many towns and cities in the West. The bashing of wealthy Californians who descend upon other states and drive up real estate values has become a familiar pastime in Seattle, Santa Fe, N.M., Salt Lake City, and Denver.

But to the surprise of Townsend and other locals, Three Forks is not succumbing to a Golden State exodus. Rather, the "immigration problem" has roots closer to home, and a recent study has spurred both soul searching and a unique planning process that may hold lessons for other rural communities across the country.

Historically, Three Forks represents a touchstone for non-Indian immigration to Montana. It was here on July 25, 1805, that Lewis and Clark camped on their way to the Pacific Ocean.

Although the town is situated 35 miles away from Bozeman, it has rapidly become a suburb, attracting commuters from Montana's fastest growing city. In six years, Three Forks's population of 2,000 residents has swelled 50 percent; it watched as productive farmland was converted into ranchettes, and the cost of the average single family dwelling shot from $30,000 to $70,000.

Most disturbing to Townsend and his constituents is that demographers predict these changes are merely a prelude to a tidal wave of growth sweeping across the Gallatin Valley.

During the early 1990s following the Los Angeles earthquake and Rodney King riots, Three Forks natives believed that their community was being overrun by Californians who, statewide, account for 1 of every 5 new residents migrating to Big Sky country.

"The very word 'Californian' has become a euphemism for unwanted change in the community, and invariably it is applied to the type of newcomers feared most by the old-time residents," says Jerry Johnson, an associate professor of political science at Montana State University in Bozeman.

Three years ago, Professor Johnson and Bruce Maxwell, an academic colleague in Bozeman, embarked upon a trailblazing experiment to make sense of the demographic, economic, and ecological transformations affecting Three Forks and to better understand the suspicious tensions that divide newcomers from old timers.

This summer, when the results were published, local residents and the researchers were stunned. It turned out that most of the newcomers are not Californians after all. The root of Three Forks's social upheaval? An influx of Montanans. Of nearly 400 families surveyed, only one household had recently moved from California. No longer, was the salvation of Three Forks based solely upon Montanans arraying themselves against the amorphous "out of staters." The enemy was within their own ranks.

Townsend admits that revelations from the study have forced city leaders to resharpen their focus on how to accommodate growth without allowing it to destroy Three Forks's reputation as a place where everybody knows your name. The study, he says, is a blueprint for action.

In the three months since it was first circulated in academic circles, the study has won widespread praise for the unusual approach it takes to predicting Three Forks's future. Some consider it a prototype for guiding other small towns through similar dilemmas.

"To the best of our knowledge, there are only two other places in the world - one in Scotland and the other in Costa Rica - where something like this has ever been attempted," says Professor Maxwell.

He says that one reason small towns everywhere refuse to take strategic planning seriously is that they have no visual model for painting a picture of what their landscape will be years ahead.

Under Maxwell's leadership, the study developed a computer model whereby Three Forks's future in 10, 20, and 30 years is actually laid out, based upon the arrival of newcomers, existing economic trends, land-development patterns and a likely downturn in farming that has protected open space. Initially a skeptic, Townsend went to the city council and strongly recommended that it hire a city planner, a move highly unusual for such a small Montana municipality.

"We know the wave of growth is moving this way from Bozeman and it won't be long before it arrives," Townsend says. "The advantage we have is that we can prepare for it and manage it hopefully in a more civilized fashion than other towns have done. By acting now, we can prevent growth from going completely crazy and leaving us with a mess."

Luther Probst, executive director of the Sonoran Institute in Tucson, Ariz., has tracked the impact of demographic shifts across the West and says that small towns adjacent to expanding urban centers have the most to lose by not addressing unrestrained growth.

Within the next 10 years, he says, the number of Americans between the ages of 45 and 55 will double, sending millions of people looking for the perfect place to retire and their own piece of paradise. "The population pressures are inevitable for places like Three Forks, but fortunately this community still has a chance to decide how it will respond to the challenge," he says.

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