Ranch country gives urbanites tips on etiquette

For city slickers on the East and West coasts contemplating a move to the wilds of Montana, there's something you should know. They don't plow all the dirt roads out here. To get from your front door in January to the nearest outpost of civilization, you may want to get a set of chains for the BMW – or a snowmobile.

You should also be aware that you'll likely have to haul your own trash to the dump. And if a stray Angus tramples your daffodils, it's up to you, not your ranching neighbor, to keep cattle out of the garden.

These and other friendly bits of advice are articulated in the "Code of the West," a document being handed out to prospective transplants in more than a dozen western counties as part of their newcomer initiation. Call it the unofficial guide to cowboy etiquette – Emily Post in chaps.

"You wouldn't believe what some people complain about," says John Vincent, a recently elected commissioner of Gallatin County, Mont., which has just created its own "Code of the West" manual. "They move to Montana in search of a perceived western lifestyle and build their log castle at the end of a dirt road. Then they want taxpayers to pay for paving a path to their driveway because they don't like dirt getting on their shiny new SUV."

What Mr. Vincent is really echoing is Code of the West rule No. 1: If you're headed to the Rockies in search of a quieter pastoral life, put a muzzle on the whining. Remember, this isn't Scarsdale or Beverly Hills.

Adoption of the code by government officials, who are serving it up as a prelude to traditional visits from the Welcome Wagon, symbolizes how much the demographics of the region are changing – and of how deep the cultural divisions run between the ranching set and those flocking to the New West in Range Rovers.

Indeed, during the 1990s, 3 million new immigrants poured into the sparsely populated Western interior. They demanded expanded services such as police and fire protection, new schools, paved roads, and snow plowing. The trouble is, providing these services could bankrupt many rural counties.

In addition to the growing fiscal burdens they bring, transplants are often smitten with the idea of living closer to nature or in agricultural landscapes. Yet they sometimes find themselves repelled at the authentic elements of their new environment.

Just recently, for instance, a judge in Idaho ruled on behalf of subdivision owners who wanted farmers to stop burning their fields in the fall, a practice the growers consider essential to maintaining soil fertility. The newcomers considered the smoke a nuisance. The homeowners filed suit under a clean-air law, which in court, trumped any sentimentality for the old mores of living off the land.

To bridge the growing cultural divides, many counties are putting out their version of Miss Manners meets the West. This summer, Gallatin County joined Canyon County in Idaho as the latest code adherents. Gallatin's manual is borrowed from earlier ones in Larimer and Gunnison counties in Colorado.

Code of the West books, in fact, are hardly new. Former Larimer County Commissioner John Clarke attributes the idea to famed Western novelist Zane Grey. "The men and women who came to this part of the county during the westward expansion of the United States were bound by an unwritten code of conduct," says Mr. Clarke. "The values of integrity and self reliance guided their decisions, actions, and interactions."

EVEN before them, native Americans had a few things to say about the way whites adjusted to their new surroundings. Or didn't. "America is a country characterized by the mobility of its citizens, and strangers have been intruding into new places all the time," says Patricia Limerick, a historian at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "Indians have the longest story to tell about seeing their neighborhood inundated with newcomers."

In one sense, Ms. Limerick says, the new codes enable locals to smugly put newcomers in their place. She sees elements of class conflict embedded in the code-book movement. "There's something funny about pretty darn rich people being treated as unwise bumpkins by the rural inhabitants," she says.

For suburbanites accustomed to Starbucks and Pottery Barns, the codes warn of new western realities:

• In many states, dogs that wander into a neighbor's pasture and start harassing livestock can be shot. No explanation needed.

• Some newcomers believe irrigation ditches that run across their land are their own private creeks. They're not. Under age-old water laws, ranchers have the right to sue anyone who uses the channels for swimming or lawn watering.

Two years ago, when Montana real estate agent Toni Bowen first recommended that Madison County adopt the code, her husband and fellow land broker didn't think it was a good idea. "He thought the notion of handing newcomers a sheet of paper telling them how to live ... might dissuade people from moving here," Ms. Bowen recalls. "But I would rather have customers prepared to survive rather than being disappointed."

In fact, many transplants pouring into this corner of Montana are thankful for the provincial advice. "They love the Code of the West," Bowen says. "There are things in there that immigrants don't even think to ask."

Yet many locals still have their pet peeves. A favorite one: the propensity of newcomers to lay on the horn when frustrated. Says Mr. Vincent: "I'm planning on having bumper stickers made that ask people the question: "Did you move here to be in such a hurry?"

QR Code to Ranch country gives urbanites tips on etiquette
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today