Tuesday, July 22, 2008


Last night was a town meeting meant to satisfy a state requirement that Pondera County have a growth plan based on smaller growth plans designed by the several communities in the county. This has put all the enthusiastic spot zoning schemes of those in control on hold: forbidden by the state without a series of town meetings. Few citizens came to this one.

One man came only to tell us that his friend from Butte (who made a lot of money and therefore was to be respected) had commented that Valier would never attract a decent business base unless they learned how to park properly. This man proposed that on the main streets we should paint stripes so people would park “right.” Because it seemed self-evident to himself and others that business thrives when a town looks good -- not that it was possible that towns look good BECAUSE the businesses are thriving. He thought that his idea might anger some people so he left as soon as he expressed it. I was laughing too hard to be angry.

My own realization -- growing for months now -- is that we are in the long-predicted “end times” when the oil runs out (or becomes so expensive that it’s the same effect). That will close some marginal businesses. Also, the supply of irrigation water will take a 30% hit in five years when the Blackfeet tribe claims its share. (It’s not that they aren’t entitled -- it’s that the non-rez people have been taking their water since the beginning.) At that point, some of the areas ag businesses (both ranches and ag supply dealers) will end. These are Third World kinds of problems. We haven’t really faced what it means to have possible bank failures or to have our basic infrastructure (like pipelines) owned by foreign countries. Spoiling the scenery by erecting wind-farms seems necessary with oil and natural gas so high, but the wind electricity will also be foreign-owned.

There are people in this town living on $500 a month or less, which is only possible with government help, but this country shows increasing unwillingness to help the poor, the elderly, the disabled, the children. There are ranchers who make it only because the government subsidizes them. One of the complaints last night was that certain streets were unpleasant because of the boat traffic headed over to the lake, but it may not be long before people park their boats under tarps in the backyard because there’s no gas for them. No one is counting them nor are they paying any fees for the dock.

There were few or no poor people at this meeting. Nor were there any identified Indians. Nor were there any of the truly prosperous people in town nor any of the owners of jewel-in-the-crown businesses like the DeVoe-Swank construction complex or the fine restaurant called “The Lighthouse” that attracts people celebrating special events from a hundred miles away. The real estate company is owned by ranchers who live in the country and dabble in state politics. They were not present.

No one was prepared to deal with the complexities of property that looks bad because ownership is in doubt, like the Willette trailer with only a feral dog in residence behind me. Owners are in nursing homes with liens on their dwellings, unpaid taxes, and -- come to that -- defaulted purchase loans. Their heirs take no interest. A new law restricting the demolition of houses until there is asbestos testing will make it even more expensive to remove old buildings.

Before the meeting I was interested to see across from the town hall a drilling rig and trotted over to ask what they were up to. Might we strike oil in the middle of town? Solve some problems, that would! But they were there on behalf of the DEQ, which has ordered monitoring stations and a test well on a highway property that formerly was occupied by a service station. The underground tanks leaked and after thirty years or so the ground contamination remains. The mayor denied that they were finding anything, but the crew said they were surprised by how high the readings were. That property is also tied up in issues of responsibility because the original owners are deceased and any inheritors have distanced themselves. Some in the room shrugged off the problem of ground contamination so I brought up the gas vapors from the old demolished service station that blew up inside the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife in the Seventies. No one on the town council had been born yet.

No one addressed the business issues we used to consider in the Sixties: how many people actually drive past, what percentage of them will stop, of the people who stop and come in, how many will buy something and how many will return? Highway 44 has been completely rebuilt, which is wonderful, but no traffic studies have been made to see whether drivers have returned to using it. The sign on 89 that used to direct traffic through to Valier is old and uninviting. No one addressed on-line businesses like the eBay antiques business that did rather well for a while (the owner developed cancer) and no one was aware of the issues if the Internet becomes pay-per-message. When I suggested that the town become a wi-fi hotspot, no one knew what that was except for the local businesses that had in-house wi-fi. We seem to have lost expertise both on the hoary old practices of post-WWII and the shiny new practices of the tech universe.

Most people seem to understand rather well that our water and sewer infrastructure is barely adequate for our present size and could not sustain much development. It came to light that one big section of unbuilt lots sits there because a sewer in that low area couldn’t be built without expensive “lift stations” and pumps. The few houses in those blocks are on septic systems. We also have a once-projected “subdivision” just across the highway and railroad that has been dropped out of subdivision status. They are on septic systems. There are two ranching operations there with concentrations of animals in corrals or feedlots for part of the year.

Growth, like shrinking, means change. There’s no such thing as standing still. Maybe the hardest kind of growth is the kind that fluctuates with construction like the new wind farm and the big international high-tension electrical line, which will bring in workers (though not in anything like the numbers of those who once came to build Swift Dam at the head of our irrigation system, because now so much is done by machinery) and then send them on their way again. The phrase “trailer court” came up just once. Border law enforcement, homeland security agents, and guards from the contract prison in Shelby like to live in Valier, but if gas continues to rise, it’s an expensive commute -- an hour’s drive.

Part of what prevents a realistic grip on problems is the sheer overwhelmingness of them, another part is people trying hard to deflect attention away from their own small iffy operations, and a third part is the sheer head-flattening terror of facing impossible fuel bills this winter when it goes to forty below, to say nothing of the burden of gasoline prices in a place where other towns are at least thirty miles away. No wonder the fantasy of straight parking as a cure-all is appealing. At least that’s something that a person could do.

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