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Still the last best place?

Still the last best place?

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Editor's note: Annick Smith is a writer and filmmaker who lives in the Blackfoot Valley. This article first ran in Montana Magazine.


Thirty years ago, celebrating Montana’s centennial, Bill Kittredge and I presented the world with a book called "The Last Best Place, A Montana Anthology."

We had worked for years with friends and editors, compiling journals, essays, stories, poems and oral tradition narratives dating back to Indian myths and Lewis and Clark. It included chronicles written by cowboys and settlers, diaries by Butte miners and work from those we believed were the best contemporary writers in the state. Much to our surprise, the book became a bestseller, not only in Montana, but all over the country and even abroad.

Why, we wondered, would this doorstop-sized volume attract so much attention? Part of that answer is its title: "The Last Best Place." Kittredge came up with it while drinking gin and tonics at Chico Hot Springs. He says he was inspired by Abraham Lincoln’s words, “The last best hope of Mankind … ” and our view of Paradise Valley: the Yellowstone River glinting below, meadows bright with wildflowers, and snow-dusted mountains all around us. Montana.

The book lives on, but the title has spawned a life of its own. It has become a symbol of all that we prize in our sprawling state. It is free for anyone to use, since no one can copyright a book’s title. And when the owner of a huge dude ranch near Ovando attempted to patent the phrase so he could have exclusive rights to use it on T-shirts, baseball caps and God knows what else, our then-Sen. Max Baucus got a bill passed that prevented anyone from patenting those now-famous words. 

“So,” a friend recently asked me — actually a Californian — “is Montana still the last best place?”

“Maybe there can be no last best place any more, anywhere,” I replied, “given what’s happening because of global warming and climate change.”

Floods, hurricanes, droughts, great fires. Starvation, mass migrations of humans and wild creatures, melting ice caps, unbearable heat, rising oceans, species going extinct, human populations exploding, along with rats, ticks, coyotes and deer — what David Quammen calls “the weed species.” These affect all of our lives. Soon there may be no good place where our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren may hide. Looking ahead, I wonder what Montana will be like 30 years from now. In 2047, will we be “best” or “last”?

In 1989 — Montana’s centennial year — we still had glaciers in Glacier National Park. We were not aware of the upcoming bark beetle plague, which did not seriously devour pine forests until the early 2000s. Although we had forest fires, they were not so widespread, and did not rage so early or last so long or choke us for months — or drain our state budget. Snow packs were deeper, runoff slower and drought was not a yearly problem.

The energy boom had not yet transformed the grassland prairies along the eastern Montana/North Dakota borders. No one foresaw the changes that would come as the Bakken fields pulsed with machines, roads, and an influx of workers from Montana and elsewhere, enriching towns like Sidney and Glendive and changing the face and faces of the Northern Plains.

We did not have Obamacare or an expanded Medicaid system to offer medical insurance to those who did not have it. Medical diagnosis and testing using MRI and CAT-scans were not commonly available. What we had for the uninsured sick and the poor were emergency rooms, and Medicare for those over 65. But insurance rates were affordable, and medical care for college kids was free and easy.

In those bad old days, Montana’s “Wild West” culture remained dominant. People smoked cigarettes without feeling like lepers. They chewed tobacco, puffed on cigars, and went drinking and driving without a second thought. This was not a good or healthy thing. We have become wiser and duller in the meantime, and more healthy and safe. But new addictions that take the place of the old sins are deadly. Now we must deal with expanding numbers of meth addicts, opioid overdoses, teen suicides, and more homeless people sleeping in cars and wandering our streets.

Of course there was poverty then, as there is now.

Rural hamlets continue to diminish and die as blue-collar workers and struggling entrepreneurs leave hard-scrabble ranchlands, defunct mill towns and industrial centers gone bust. Many hang on to what they have worked all their lives to keep, but can’t count on their children to continue the family farm or small business. Some go out of state, while others settle in burgeoning and gentrified big towns such as Bozeman, Kalispell, Billings and Missoula.

Meanwhile, rich folks escaping big cities have been buying up prized waterfronts, scenic ranches and high-country estates — building hideout McMansions as second homes along fishing streams and up in the mountains, cutting off public access to hunting and fishing spots local people had used for years. This has always been so in Montana — remember Teddy Roosevelt and buffalo-hunting aristocrats — but there were not so many multimillionaires, and their wealth was never so visible.

Tourism has increased exponentially, replacing agriculture, logging and mining as our economy’s mainstay. Thirty years ago, locals were moaning about the influx of strangers, but now we have more motels to service them, better restaurants, art galleries and sales of Montana-made goods. There’s been a spurt in music festivals that bring everyone pleasure. Our rivers are jammed with fly fishermen and guides, and our airports are crowded with hunters and skiers and backpacking visitors. We welcome the jobs that come along with such growth, but much of our infrastructure remains broken, cities have traffic jams, roads are crowded with campers and trailers, and the identities we thought we had are irrevocably altered.

Thirty years is a long stretch in a rapidly changing environment, and an even more rapidly changing culture, to say nothing of an individual life. In 1987 I was just past 50, my youngest sons were finishing college, and I was feeling my oats as a late-starting writer after a brief career making movies.

I did most of my business by phone, and wrote actual letters. There were no cellphones and only limited internet. Digital cameras were just beginning to replace film, and we still printed from negatives and shopped in stores. Montanans were more isolated than they are today, but more secure. Was that better? Or worse?

Missoula is my home turf when I’m not settled down in my log house in the Blackfoot Valley. It’s where I shop and work and visit friends. My boys went to high school in Missoula, and my husband Dave Smith taught English literature at the university before his untimely death, and that’s where my partner Kittredge was a professor of creative writing until he retired.

In 1987 the University of Montana was a vital center of culture in Montana and the West — its writers and writing program were famous, as were its School of Journalism and the art department, which featured Rudy Autio. Students could study Montana history with K. Ross Toole, while music and theater flourished. The humanities were respected both inside and outside the university, while growing departments of forestry and environmental studies reflected an upsurge of environmental consciousness and research.

The campus was spacious in the '80s, with lawns where we could play touch football or pickup softball. The newly built Washington-Grizzly Stadium promised a rebirth of football, which was, and still is, a kind of community glue. But no intelligent adult ever thought college sports and local heroes were innocent or pure. Griz Nation had seen scandals in the past, but could not have anticipated a national scandal involving rapes and cover-ups, and a book called "Missoula" that would blacken our university’s reputation and cause prospective students to flee toward a safer haven in Bozeman. We did not anticipate lower enrollments and budget restrictions — a diminishment of humanities in favor of more employable subjects in science, technology, business and law. Yet, while UM is suffering, Montana State is thriving.

Things change. The Missoula Mercantile, which had been the center of downtown commerce for over 100 years, was vital in the '80s. But Southgate Mall, which had opened a few years before, channeled business out of the city center, and eventually the Merc found itself empty and falling apart —demolished last year to be replaced by a Marriott hotel.

Reserve Street had not been enlarged in 1987, and Target, Costco and Walmart were not on the horizon. Downtown streets bustled with bar life, but there were only a few decent restaurants compared to now. Many shops on Higgins Avenue were boarded up, and others fled to the mall, but the city would not give in. New businesses sprang up, a Downtown Association sponsored Out to Lunch concerts under a new canopy and bleachers along the Clark Fork. We would have a hand-painted Carousel, and a spectacular Osprey Stadium for our baseball team. A system of trails and parks along the riverfront added a welcome greenway in what had been a blighted area of tepee burners, lumber mills and railroad tracks.

The Farmer’s Market along the tracks at the foot of Higgins Avenue was a new thing in 1987. It opened with immigrant Hmong farmers and their English-speaking children selling fresh fruit and vegetables. Organic farmers would add to the mix with produce picked in season from the PEAS Farm at the edge of town and from orchards and gardens in the Bitterroot and Flathead — Bitterroot apples, Dixon melons and Flathead cherries. Vietnamese gleaners hawked huckleberries they’d harvested from the mountains, and bearded hippies offered wild mushrooms. Russian women in babushkas sold pickles and beets.

It was the beginning of a tradition that would include the Clark Fork Market under the Higgins Avenue Bridge, which offers organically grown meats, fresh cooked food, pastries and native plants, music and local distilled liquor. Outdoor markets are gathering places that fill us with earthly delights. But 30 years ago, there was only one public market and a hunger for the local and the authentic.

Much of Montana has gone the way of Missoula. More people, more amenities, more wealth, a higher standard of living, environmental protections, public markets and good homemade beer. Our town has created a wilderness area up the Rattlesnake and open spaces where elk and deer and black bears roam. Heading east, the Blackfoot Challenge is a model for cooperative management of a rivershed, and in the mill town of Bonner, the EPA removed a dam and its toxic wastes, allowing the Blackfoot and Clark Fork to merge. New industry is thriving at the old mill site, along with an open-air concert venue and a brewery.

Up the Blackfoot, our electorate stopped a cyanide heap leach gold mine at its headwaters near Lincoln. Plum Creek’s timberlands around Potomac, which were logged to near death, were bought by The Nature Conservancy and the Trust for Public Lands and have been sold to the state. And up the Swan, the Crown of the Continent was also preserved for public use. On the down side, as timberlands and demand have flagged, logging mills and loggers are disappearing, much to the despair of communities that depend on such industries. And all over the state, workers who made good livings from harvesting natural resources are largely unemployed or underemployed.

Further upcountry, grizzlies in Glacier and Yellowstone parks have been protected, and wolves reintroduced. The success of such efforts has been met with renewed energy to kill and destroy them, but the animals are still here, and so are we who fought to protect them. And in eastern Montana, between Lewistown and Malta, there is a huge new prairie reserve bordering the Missouri River that combines private lands with public lands and adjoining reservation lands to bring bison back to their old stomping grounds and to protect native flora and fauna. Although some ranchers are outraged, the reserve has become a center for environmental studies, student research, tourism and ecological health.

In southeastern Montana, coal mining and coal-fired plants in Colstrip have been in decline for market reasons more than environmental regulations. Who knows if coal will come back as President Donald Trump promised? Economists say no. While coal went down, wind power and solar energy have made big gains. On grasslands near Harlowton, where in 1979 we filmed our "Heartland" movie, there is a forest of wind turbines. Harlow is doing better these days, and so are Montana-made films.

As our natural resource-based colonial economy dies, clean industries in technology and health care are offering jobs to those skilled enough to perform them. Education is the key to new forms of prosperity, but public education, which was once the pride of the state, has dropped in importance among voters and the Legislature.

I could go on with my listing of bests and lasts, and so can every reader with lists of their own. But if I ask myself if Montana is still The Last Best Place, I wonder what place is better. Maybe Hawaii? Or Sweden? Or Paris, where I was born. Those are delightful places to visit, but when it comes to living, I will choose my meadow in the Blackfoot Valley anytime.

So yes, Montana is still my Last Best Place. I don’t know if it will be the best place for my children or grandchildren — or yours, dear readers. But I know we can help to preserve the good and the rare: grizzly bears and wolves, old-growth forests, native grasses, and migrating birds. We can build sheltering towns and healthy gardens, fund our schools and universities, and take care of the old, the sick and the poor. Or not. The future is still partly in our hands. At least for a little while.

Thirty years is a long stretch in a rapidly changing environment, and an even more rapidly changing culture, to say nothing of an individual life.

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Related to this story

Montana author and writing master Bill Kittredge, who co-created the iconic “The Last Best Place” title for a compendium of Montana literature, died on Friday. He was 88.

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