Wild Growth

We’ve written about the value of wilderness in the context of international energy development in the past.  Now a new documentary has highlighted the challenges of preserving wilderness in the face of sprawling development domestically.

Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front is one of the  remaining in the lower 48 that can make a claim to true wilderness.  While ranchers have been carving a living out of the land for over 100 years they have done it alongside the native wolves and grizzlies the entire time.  But increasing population growth in newly popular outdoor towns like Bozeman have placed pressure on this way of life.  As more and more recognize the amenities that come with living in such close proximity to wilderness that same wilderness becomes threatened by development.

The challenge facing the Rocky Mountain Front is crystallized by the experience of the geographically analogous Front Range 700 miles to the south in Colorado.  Colorado’s Front Range is made up of Denver and the smaller towns arrayed north and south of it along the I-25 corridor.  It is also one of the fastest growing “megaregion” in the country.   That development, similar to the development facing the Rocky Mountain Front, is driven by a high quality of life and easy access to the amenities that come from having half a dozen wilderness areas within 4 hours drive of downtown.

But the development that these amenities engender also threatens them.  At the peak of Denver’s first boom in the late 1970s it resulted in some of the worst air quality in the country.  The infamous “brown cloud” that hung over the city meant on some days you couldn’t see the mountains that rise just ten miles to the west.  It also resulted in sprawling sub-divisions north and south of the city that ate up some of the world’s most productive farm land and drove a need for cars which only exacerbated the air pollution problems.

It was because of this that a major downturn in the local economy was ultimately a blessing for the Front Range.  It gave the region a second chance at planning it’s development.  The “brown cloud” was replaced by stringent pollution measures which made Denver the first major metropolitan area to achieve the EPA’s triple crown and an active campaign of land acquisition by smaller towns up and down the I-25 corridor to maintain green spaces and slow sprawl.  This has been capped off by a recent expansion of the public transport infrastructure in and around Denver.

These changes meant that Denver is much more prepared to deal with high rates of projected growth for the next 40 years.  It also serves as an example for the Rocky Mountain Front of the right and wrong way to develop.  Uncontrolled development will ultimately ruin what makes the region special now.  Regulated and managed development that preserves the current character of the region, and the wilderness that makes it desirable, will be the key to sustainable long-term growth in the region.

Stopping all growth is not possible and ultimately may not be desirable.  It is, after all, the most obvious way in which the value of the wilderness materializes.  Certainly the most easily recognized by politicians.  So rather than stopping growth it needs to be managed so as to encourage the development of denser, rather than sprawling, urban cores.  This type of urban density may be contrary to the deeply held western belief in space between neighbors and low-rise development but, with people flooding in, it may be the only thing that can save the big sky country that also defines the west.


Common Ground from RED REEL on Vimeo.

Image Credit: Feetyouwear via Wikimedia Commons


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