Is Montana No Longer the Last Best Place?

One of the main jobs of Upper Missouri Waterkeeper is to protect the rights of our members and fight against projects that would do harm to our river valleys. Below we’ve shared an open letter from some of our members that could be directly impacted by an egregious McMansion proposal in the wrong place – Horse Creek Hills. We wanted to share this to offer the perspective of our members on an issue that’s becoming more and more common in our rural river valleys.

Is Montana No Longer the Last Best Place?
The Threats of the Horse Creek Hills Subdivision 

“Just because you own half the county doesn’t mean you have the right to run the rest of us!” Aunt Em scolded Almira Gulch, after hearing Gulch’s threats to do away with Aunt Em and Uncle Henry’s farm in the Silver Screen classic “The Wizard of Oz.”  

A common story line: the rich landowner leveraging power and influence to gain advantage over the common rancher, threatening their livelihood and individual ranchers’ existence. We find ourselves as Broadwater County residents watching this story unfold in our ranching community east of Canyon Ferry Lake. The proposed Horse Creek Hills subdivision echoes this classic theme, as one of the largest and wealthiest landowning families in Montana attempts to cause irreparable harm to local Broadwater County ranches, habitat, and wildlife by forcing the development of 39 residential lots on 435 acres in the midst of our modest agrarian community raising crops and livestock near Confederate Creek.  

Horse Creek Hills is a proposed trophy home development, encompassing four subdivisions with a total of 39 residential lots. The commercial lots are proposed to be accessed from Lower Confederate Road. In addition to the 39 lots, 2 commercial lots are planned (a gas station and a convenience store). The Horse Creek Hills developer and Broadwater County Commission have failed to acknowledge or address impacts to ranchers and other agricultural producers. They have failed to evaluate the destructive effects on water use, fish habitat, and irrigation near Confederate Creek, including the addition of at least 40 wells competing for local groundwater. The addition of 39 family homes and two commercial properties will add excessive increasing burdens to existing local taxpayers for significant and, up to now unnecessary road improvements. The county seems to be willfully ignoring or worse, purposely overlooking threats to a prominent big-game habitat and the negative impacts to game management on pristine public lands.  

After decades of military service around the globe and more than 50 years combined between the two of us, my wife and I packed up our family, household, and horses and headed west to settle in Montana. We were and still are deeply attracted to Montana’s culture and environment, and we are thrilled that our daughter gets to grow up here. The Montana slogan “The Last Best Place” caught our attention as we searched for the ideal environment to raise our daughter and care for our horses. We had many options to settle elsewhere. We chose Montana, specifically the East side of Canyon Ferry Lake, because of our strong belief in Montana’s rural work ethic and ethos. As transplants, we moved into an existing homestead here to make Montana our home, to integrate into Montana culture – not to change it! Ironically, we couldn’t believe the news that a wealthy Montana developer is willing to take destructive action against the Montana culture and environment we and our ranching community love and fervently seek to preserve. How could a prominent Montanan landowning family contemplate wrecking the ‘Last Best Place” by imposing a trophy home development on their fellow ranching Montanans?

With this worthy legal fight to preserve our ranching community and environment, there is a moral dimension that cannot be ignored. The developer possesses deep leverage and influence throughout Montana by way of land holdings and deep ties at the highest level of Montana State government. The wealthy landowner/developer is exerting leverage that threatens common ranchers’ livelihood, at a time in our nation when thousands of acres of ranch and farmland disappear every day. It is not just a matter of preserving local livelihoods and habitat, it is a matter of national interest and precedent, as corporations tighten central control on the nation’s food supply.  

Regretfully, the Broadwater County Commission has failed to advocate for its ranching and residential constituents who stand to lose agri-businesses and resources from reckless development practices in a primarily agricultural ranching community. County Commission bias  towards the wealthy developer is palpable, and it is obvious. The commission allowed for a shoddy application process to commence the development before community residents stepped in to hold the Commission accountable for its lack of diligence. Public hearing opportunities have been manipulated by the commission to limit community commentary intensely against the development. The Broadwater County Commission is tacitly facilitating this lucrative deal for the wealthy landowner/developer, who stands to profit from this mini mansion development, while simultaneously (and insidiously) eliminating local ranching competition in the area.  

The Broadwater County Commission has fallen well short in answering vital questions from county residents about the impacts of the Horse Creek Hills Development:  

– Why has there been a lack of care and due-diligence in the review of the development application, for a development that will irrevocably alter the environment?  

– Why is the landowner-developer being treated as a favored client, when the habitat, the wildlife, and so many residents and ranches stand to suffer great loss? 

– With several working ranches and other more modest agricultural production activities in the immediate area, why didn’t the county commission take decisive action to protect these businesses, and residences, by zoning the area for agriculture in the first place?  

– Who is the local rancher’s advocate to stop this injustice if not the County Commission? 

We are forced to assume that with Broadwater County leadership woefully complicit with the wealthy landowner/developer, our hope and prayers lie with decisive action at the State level. We implore State-level executives and lawmakers to step up to defend our ranchers and pristine ecological environment East of Canyon Ferry Lake. If the Horse Creek Hills development isn’t halted, the precedent will be set pressuring for more trophy home developments East of Canyon Ferry Lake, eventually consuming the remaining ranching operations West of the Big Belt Mountains. 

After watching the unfair leverage this wealthy developer has taken against our local ranchers, the overarching question for our community remains: is Montana truly the “Last Best Place?” Is Montana vulnerable to the rich and powerful who perpetuate the consumer culture and urban sprawl we find prevalent on the East or West Coast, forsaking the environment and historical, agricultural livelihoods in the name of corporate profit? From our family and our local community’s perspective, much will depend on whether Montana’s institutions will protect our local ranching community by prohibiting a wealthy landowner-developer from profiting at their expense. 

We believe our small ranching community is worth fighting for. We hope that our fellow Montanans feel the same. May justice favor the local rancher, the habitat, our natural resources, and wildlife. We hope that Montana truly remains the Last Best Place.  

– John & Holly Silkman