Montana Viewpoint
July 23, 2007

I’ve been giving new thought to the saying “that government which is closest to the people is best.” It was prompted by something that happened at a meeting on water policy and use in Dillon a couple of weeks ago.

A fellow named Harold was giving a presentation on water issues in the Big Hole Valley, and I confess my mind was wandering a bit until I heard him say “…and we have building setbacks on the Big Hole…” Now requiring new homes to be built a certain distance (a setback) was a very contentious item in the 2007 Legislature, and SB 345, which was legislation promoting it made a pretty quick exit, but here was a local rancher talking about local success in getting setbacks.

I asked about the distance, which was 200 feet for subdivisions and 150 feet for single residences. Not much different from SB 345. My next questions were: “why?” and “how?” The answers were each pretty simple. He said they had seen what riverfront development had done to other areas in Montana, and he and fellow members of the Big Hole Watershed Committee didn’t want that to happen in the Big Hole. The how was, “we just went around and talked to people.”

These are people whose families have ranched the Big Hole for generations. They are, I imagine, cautious, conservative folk who don’’t much like being told what to do by outsiders, but who have the common sense and determination to solve their problems with methods outsiders might like to impose on them. They saw the future of the Big Hole by looking at the present in other valleys, and they acted.

This is all by way of saying that there is a big difference in getting something to happen by making people do it or letting people do it. This should not come as a revelation to anyone who has raised children. To the extent possible, laws should not mandate action but should encourage it.

This is an example of what can be done by neighbors working together versus governmental dictates, but there’s a larger principal involved, and that’s having a basic consideration for the needs of others; something that seems to be doing well in the ranching communities of Southwest Montana, if my conversation with Harold was anything to go by.

We talked about how fishing activity on the Big Hole River has changed as the traditional fishing practices of solitary anglers has been replaced by fishing boats operated by professional fishing guides. As many as 60 boats a day will go down certain reaches of the river, but the Big Hole Watershed Committee has made a deal with the fishing outfitters to stay off the river one day a week. Why? Well because, “we thought it was important that people from Butte and other places who had been fishing the river for years had an opportunity to enjoy their favorite fishing hole without being disturbed.”

Many areas of Montana are faced with contentious land use problems which I believe, will change our culture quite a bit. The land defines us as Montanans; it is such a large part of who we are and how we think. As open space is taken up by subdivisions and rivers and streams come under population pressure we will change as a people. We can’t stop that change. We can determine its direction and intensity, but we won’t do it with sweeping legislation from Helena, or even ordinances from the County Seat.

If we are going to direct growth it will have to be done by locale, and directed by the people who live in that locale. In ranching country watersheds are a natural definition, but in the Western counties there is more of a division along community lines. Whichever way it needs to be divided up also has to come from those who divide it.

Finally, we talked about haying. In the Big Hole they flood irrigate the hayland in the spring. They get a good crop, but they take only one cutting.

“Yeah, we could get two cuttings if we threw some water to it in late July,” Harold said, “but then people downstream wouldn’t have any water, and that’s not right.”

You can have a pretty good life if you don’t put yourself first.


Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620