Even the farthest corners of rural West get 'Aspenized'

Summer fires stoke outrage over a gated community in Montana, as tiny towns get millionaire neighbors.

A few years ago, Tim Blixseth set out to build an exclusive, forested hideaway for the rich and famous not far from the northwest corner of Yellowstone National Park.

Offering access to a private ski resort, 16 miles of fishing streams, and priceless views of Yellowstone, the timber-baron-turned-real-estate developer attracted the the likes of former vice-presidential candidate Jack Kemp and Tour de France champion Greg Le Mond.

Membership was set at $250,000, with annual fees of $16,000. Custom homes cost another $5 million.

In Vail, Colo., or Jackson, Wyo., no one would raise an eyebrow over The Yellowstone Club. But this is rural Montana, and to some residents, the club represents a pretentious example of how even remote corners of this friendly state are becoming "Aspenized" - a derisive colloquial expression that applies to elitist development.

It's a lament heard from Florida to California - wherever exclusive, gated communities have sprouted on the edges of homespun hamlets. But this summer, as fire threatened to turn the club to ash, the people of nearby Big Sky, Mont., have had to struggle with a question of conscience: Should they reach out to help the neighbors who normally would hold them at arm's length?

"Everybody talks about class warfare in this country and that [The Yellowstone Club] is probably one of the better examples. That it is located in Montana makes it stick out all the more," says Ken Wharton, a retired teacher from Minnesota who used to own a home in Big Sky.

The intent of The Yellowstone Club, which is limited to 900 members and their families, is not to be snobby, Mr. Blixseth has said in the past. (When contacted about this article, his office said he was unavailable for comment.) Rather, the club, which is in the first stages of construction, is intended to be a place where celebrities can enjoy peace and quiet away from the hassles of paparazzi and perpetual hounding.

But the proposed character of the place - as an isolated, gated community - and the means by which Blixseth got the prized land have angered many Montanans. After all, some of his property holdings are former public lands that he secured though a land trade.

"It was one of the best bow-hunting places for elk early in the season in the entire state," says Joe Gutkoski, an avid hunter and 32-year veteran of the US Forest Service. "And [there's] none finer habitat for moose."

In recent weeks, the specter of fire has also reopened rifts in the community. As the Beaver Creek fire swept toward Big Sky, some locals were loath to rally behind the cause of saving The Yellowstone Club.

"It's getting to a point where only the rich can afford to own a piece of paradise, but who do they call when trouble appears in the forest? They call us to help rescue them," says Mr. Wharton.

In truth, the US Bureau of Land Management has found itself devoting significant resources to protecting all kinds of homes - grandiose or modest - that sit on private property next to federal lands. But there's a growing belief among people here that many newcomers knowingly move deep into forested areas, and they should be getting greater scrutiny from insurance companies, local planning and zoning boards, and firefighting agencies that attack blazes on public lands.

For his part, Blixseth has repeatedly said he wants to make sure The Yellowstone Club is not a drain on the local tax base. He hopes to make it so self-sufficient - with its own security, fire department, and other services - that it doesn't cost taxpayers a penny.

He even went so far as to vow that he'd use his bulldozers and backhoes to dig a fire line if the Beaver Creek blaze ever approached Big Sky and the club. The fire died out 20 miles south this week, but his promise won some converts in town.

Indeed, most have sympathy for families and property owners who find themselves in harm's way. Mr. Gutkoski, for one, says the public has an obligation to assist those in need. But he and others are worried that the message from this year's fires might not have gotten across.

"It's a foolish premise to believe that when you surround yourself with forest and place yourself in the middle of forested wild lands, fire will not arrive on your doorstep," he says. "Maybe the Beaver Creek fire got snuffed out by the rain and snow, but next year there might be another fire."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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