Tuesday, June 24, 2014


The Valier Area Developmental Corporation (VADC)" was created in April of 1979 as a nonprofit organization with the purpose of furthering economic development of the Valier area, developing social, recreational and cultural potentials; and developing markets, opportunities and potentials for businesses.”  That was 35 years ago.  Things have changed.

Since I came back in 1999, I’ve heard people say over and over, “well, the VADC should do thus and so.”  But they could never explain who they were or how they operated. Long ago there was a sign where highway 89 and highway 44 joined, trying to divert traffic across the “shortcut” to I-15, the Yellowstone route, on the assumption that people would naturally stop for coffee at the Panther.  The sign is old and faded now, even though there’s been far more justification of it while the treacherous rebuilding of 89 was underway to the south of 44.  Instead there’s a highway dept. sign warning away motorcycles.  (Not that it works.)  Old surefire strategies fade away.

Listening to the town council meetings and conversations around town, it’s clear that the VADC was meant to address tourists, to bring in money from outside and attract new businesses.  Lately there's been the idea that if new houses were built, jobs would arrive so people could live in the houses.  Efforts focus on the recreation park or “prettying up” the town so as to make a good impression.  But after a good deal of thought and observation, this is misplaced.  What is desperately needed for growth and harmony is not focused on tourists who come through once on their way to the Blackfeet casino, or even on the greater area of people who habitually stop for coffee or gas on their way to Glacier Park.

What we really need is some way to recognize and honor the symbiosis between the town as defined by its legal boundaries and the town’s service area which reaches out into the ranch and farmland as far as the phone area code, the postal code, the electrical matrix, heating gas service, cellular and satellite service.  Much of it is on the reservation.

More than anything else the area is defined by irrigation.  Pondera Canal Company rules.  Swift Dam is on the reservation.  The dependent canals are almost all on the southeast side of town, pausing along Valier to create Lake Francis.  Most of the surrounding ranches and farms exist only because of that irrigation system.  But for the whole area potable water, as carried in the steady heavy truck traffic past my house on Montana Av., is coming from the Valier town treated water system, which draws on wells.  These users pay for the water but are not involved in the borrowing and actual system costs, neither by votes nor by financial obligation.  I'll repeat:  the service area residents can neither vote nor are they financially obligated to the public infrastructures of the town.

The school, the churches, the library, the cafe, the hardware store, the grocery store, the butcher, the gas station, Hank Taylor, the motor services, the excavation company, the car wash, the embroidery business are dependent on the surrounding population just as those people are dependent on the Valier services.  More than that, people within Valier tend to be retired, on salary, and in service occupations.  They tend to be older and their children often leave for the big world, hoping for opportunities.  At the same time other folks with limited incomes move here hoping for a world they knew in the past, stable and conservative.  They have little sense of assuming membership in the cooperative that is a small town.

The ranchers and farmers around Valier have major capital in the form of land, which means they can handle the high costs of prestige colleges and their kids are often so attached to the home place that they return to be fitted into the family operation.  This is a second kind of capital in terms of ideas, contacts, experience with people who are quite different, and a wider world-view.  These days a cattle rancher doesn’t just raise cows: they do AI, sell semen, transplant fetuses for export, and sell on the Internet.  It’s high tech stuff, very computerized.

But the basic kernel of Valier is still irrigation and wheat, as has been true since before Cargill bought out the Conrad brothers.  The elevators, the railroad spur, and the labor and machinery of planting and harvesting continue.  Likewise, cattle are still sorted, trucked, get veterinary care, and so on.  Both are water dependent and not because cows like to fish.

The kernel that is Valier and the harvest that is the land in the service area need to be balanced and coordinated, if only in terms of honoring vital partners. If the wheat market collapsed, if Rocky Mountain snow pack ended (it is much diminished), if a plague hit the beef, if climate change shifted in some way that meant the area was unlivable, those things would have nothing to do with the VADC.  But pushing for better cell and internet service, maintaining proper infrastructure, and checking out stuff like wind farms and frakking -- if we can see them from town they must be relevant -- seem like pretty important things to do as a shared community.
Outsiders aren’t just stopping through to buy trinkets.  Academics are sorting out the history of the irrigation project and the catastrophe of Swift Dam’s failure, making videos about the dynamics of the early years of the frontier, and deciding whether Valier gets state or federal help.  Locals are shocked and appalled that the state or the feds can regulate us so much, but we can't afford to resist them.  

If half our service customers are on the reservation, then it would behoove us to be friendly to those folks who come here for mail, school, café, gas, and groceries.  They come through daily, not yearly like most tourists.  I don't hear much about relations with Heart Butte since Mike left and his service station closed.  (Incidentally, does this town have a tow truck?)  And yet a number of Heart Butte employees live in Valier.  Heart Butte itself has exploded with housing projects and sub-offices of the IHS hospital and tribe, let alone the school.  Valier is the closest service town.

People are living frantic lives now -- we feel we need more stuff but everyone is already working to their limits.  Therefore, VADC should find ways to reward and praise those who are willing to put out the extra effort to be EMT’s and fire department responders.  There are people in this town who will plow out driveways in winter without expecting any reward, and do other good deeds: what about a quiet honor roll to recognize them?  

Our senior center meals are excellent, plus meals-on-wheels.  This seems like a crucial way to keep our old people out of nursing homes and close to family.  The Valier Clinic is also important, as is the subsidized government apartment complex.  The library is an engine for improvement.  Our newest business, Chinook Woodcrafts, is of exceptional quality, as are several of the artists around town who sell their work there.  This town may turn out to be an arts hub because of the little old houses where an artist could spend the summer in a studio context.

I love the bumper sticker above!   So far no one has said they stopped in Valier because they read my blogs, but a whole lot more people around the planet know there IS such a place as Valier.  Paul Wheeler, Ken’s relative, said he never thought of Valier as having much to look at except the usual lake and mountains but after a steady barrage of cats, flowers and old cars, he says he’s changed his assumptions.  That's my contribution.
Perhaps the original organizers of the VADC were thinking in terms of a Chamber of Commerce with a vision in mind of a neat little town where all the people agreed on what a good life meant.  But thirty-five years later maybe the internal schisms need to be addressed in order to let the founding dynamics of the economy keep rolling smoothly. 

Let us be a beacon!

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