Urban sprawl drives cowboys to the wall

MONTANA DAYS

You would think I was reaching for my holster. Conversation dies instantly and a dozen cowboy hats - that's everyone in the place - turn to see who is talking. "Oh shit," says the mean-looking guy down the bar to my right with the droopy moustache and giant hands. "That is a dirty word around here."

Half-way down Paradise Valley in south-west Montana, the Old Saloon (established 1902), with its dusty decor of antique spurs and horse tackle, is still a place where ranchers and cowboys gather in the evening and drink beer from the bottle. And the one thing that gets them riled up, second only to a property developer walking in, is someone uttering the word "sub- divide".

To these boys and to many other Montanans, sub-dividing is a new disease ravaging the state. Precisely because of its areas of extraordinary natural beauty, with the Rocky Mountain peaks, sweeping valleys and pristine rivers, outsiders are pouring in. But by coming in such numbers, these new immigrants to the West - the capuccino cowboys as some call them - threaten to spoil the very things they came to enjoy.

The phenomenon is most acute in this, most stunning, corner of the state. Many ranchers are selling out to the developers, who in turn sub-divide the properties into small plots and dot the landscape with houses.

Some newcomers are Hollywood names. Paradise Valley is home, for instance, to Dennis Quaid, Meg Ryan (his wife) and Jeff Bridges. But most are ordinary Americans seeking relief from the urban crush.

Wally Wanes, a small-time rancher with 20 acres, leans on the bar of the Old Saloon and vents his resentment. "There ain't no place for cows no more, because of these sons of bitches and their houses. They're planting houses instead of grass. They move out here to live like we do and then change the rules when they get here. They're running us off, one by one".

His drinking partner, Delton Busby, is no more charitable about his new neighbours, whom he blames for recent tax increases. "The type of people who are moving in aren't really nice folk as far as I'm concerned. I don't care if I never have to meet them. They think we just fallen off the turnip wagon. They think we're nuts, because all that matters to them is money".

The influx - this and neighbouring counties are growing at 5 per cent a year - is also giving local government planners nightmares. Dale Beland, the county planner in nearby Bozeman, a once cosy but now sprawling college town that sits beneath the Big Sky ski area, is struggling to find ways of coping with the increasing demand for new roads, services and school places, without raising taxes. "The situation is critical", he says. "And I see absolutely no reason to expect that this is peaking".

Nor does everyone find the Utopia they have been hoping for when they arrive here. New jobs are scarce and living in the rural environment of the West can bring some nasty surprises.

Take the fracas that erupted in Bozeman when a group of new residents awoke to discover the beavers they were so proud to have in their back yards had built a damn in the local stream and flooded their basements. Outraged, they returned to urban type and demanded that the beavers be destroyed. In the end, the animals were relocated and the offending damn was dynamited.

Among others to have witnessed the changes is Mike Art, a Chicago emigre who bought a rundown old hotel and hot springs in Paradise Valley 25 years ago. Now it is a charming, four-star rated resort that is a favourite haunt of the local Hollywood residents. (Even so, the cowboys in the Old Saloon urge me to pay a visit).

For sale on the hotel reception desk are black-and-white postcards depicting a Fifties-looking family gazing at some flying saucers flying over a mountain landscape. The scene is meant to be Paradise Valley and the caption reads: "More Californians no doubt".

Mr Art says the transformation of the valley has happened mostly in the last three years. He attributes it partly to Robert Redford's historical film about a Montana family addicted to fly-fishing, A River Runs Through It, which was mostly filmed in this area. "People saw Redford's picture and said, `That's a place I'd like to move to.' What's happening now is that the old Montanans who have farmed here for decades have sold their souls. If someone was going to offer you a million dollars for the land wouldn't you take it?"

It should not be said no one benefits from the change. Mr Art admits: "Selfishly speaking, for us it's a positive thing. It's good for anyone here trying to start a business. But aesthetically, I'm sorry that where I used to see horses and cows grazing I now see `For Sale' signs."

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