The Last Best Place Is the Hot Place

TWO DOT, MONTANA — Two Dot, Montana. --Maybe Montana is too hot to cool down.

Movie stars and assorted celebrities are buying ranches, while lesser lights are subdividing farms at a feverish pace. Ted Turner zTC and Jane Fonda have purchased 25,000 acres in western Montana to go with the 100,000 they already own. Not far away -- well, not far by Montana standards -- Glenn Close, Beau and Jeff Bridges, Tom Brokaw and Whoopi Goldberg. In northwest Montana: Dolly Parton, Carol Burnett, Tom Cruise, Tom Selleck . . .


Bozeman, a sleepy cow-college town when I was growing up, swarms with tourists. It has a wine shop called Grape Expectations and a coffee shop partly owned by Glenn Close. Housing developments in the hills and canyons north of town look tawdry beneath the Bridger Peak.

In Livingston, where much of "A River Runs Through It" was filmed (because the real river in Norman Maclean's novella is polluted), land values have increased from $1,500 to $6,500 an acre in 10 years. A woman in the town's largest real-estate office tells me only land speculators are happy. "Nothing is moving," she says. "No one can afford to sell because no one can afford to buy."


Here in Two Dot, population 35, some 110 miles north of the nearest stoplight in Billings, Ron and Evelyn Parrish are selling the Two Dot Bar to a couple from Las Vegas and moving across the Continental Divide to Missoula. A real-estate man handling the sale tells me of a California man who telephoned "and wanted to buy a ranch, any ranch, on the Mus selshell River. He said he'd pay cash." I hear similar tales in the lush Bitterroot Valley near the Idaho border.

Montanans seem to be more bemused than alarmed at the invasion of tourists, movie stars and yuppies. (Some Montanans, after all, are cashing in on their new-found fame.) They blame the Californians, to whom, it is said, everything is cheap. A Time magazine cover story announces that "the Rocky Mountain home of cowboys and lumberjacks has become a magnet for lone-eagle telecommuters and Range Rover-driving yuppies." The article is full of tales of Westerners and Easterners pulling up stakes to settle in the Rockies, where "the problems are smaller," the streets safer. Referring to the state's claim to be the "last best place," Missoula writer William Kittredge says in a sidebar to the Time article that Montana may be "the last safe place."

But it's not those outsiders who are the big problem under the Big Sky. The movie stars (who are fun to watch and seldom seen in winter) and the newcomers do little harm and generally help the economy. Because they've moved here for a better life, they insist on good schools and municipal services. If enough of them come, perhaps Montana will regain the second congressional seat it lost in the last round of reapportionment.

No, Montana's big problem is that it has always been a resource-exporting state with little clout in Washington and other places where natural resources are regulated. First its copper, then its coal, then its timber were taken away by outsiders. And companies like Anaconda (which literally removed part of the city of Butte to get to the copper beneath) did not replace their divots when they left the state. The result is scarred land, thousands of acres of cleared forests. (One of the largest timber companies is selling out now and leaving the state.) And there's heavy pressure to open more federally owned wilderness to loggers and miners.

Because Montana is so vast, it's easy to discount any damage that might have been done. A population equivalent to Baltimore, Towson and Parkville is squeezed into a state the size of Michigan, Illinois and Indiana combined. The Bozemans of Montana, even the stripped forestland, are like tiny splotches on a wall mural. More than 6 million people visited the state last year, but precious few found their way to out-of-the-way Ekalaka, Madoc, Yaak or Belt.

You can drive for hours without seeing another human being. On my way to Two Dot, I take deserted back roads I know along Sweet Grass Creek in the shadows of the spectacular Crazy Mountains to the west. It's as though it's been set up for me -- thrilling beyond words.

Can it be spoiled now that Montana is rediscovered by outsiders? A travel writer in Holiday magazine this summer said the state's vastness "could never be Vermontized." But my answer is a phrase Montanans substitute for "Thank you": "You bet."

Mike Bowler edits The Evening Sun's Other Voices page.