Dillon, Montana is a quintessential ranch town where the Ruby Range gives way to the Blacktail Mountains on the climb up the Beaverhead and Red Rock rivers, just under the “chin” of Montana and over the Continental Divide back into Idaho.
It is just west and over the divide from our ancestral ranch in Idaho’s Yellowstone-Teton nook. Dillon has always been one of my favorite places, dating to trips we took to trade horses or when passing through to see family when I was the age of my grandsons and older.
We were sure to stop there last month as we returned from an annual family lake-rendezvous.
The area surrounding Dillon is the center of Montana’s cattle and hay country with 137,000 head of Cattle, 14,000+ sheep and 2,200 horses being ranged on more than 400 surrounding ranches spread over more than 5,500 square miles on 2 million acres of range land.
Livestock - 28 per square mile, people - 1.7 per square mile, about a third forested and wooded-mountains with incredible wildlife habitat. I’m a long way from the country of my youth, but country such as this has never been far from my heart and soul.
This area is God’s country!
Dillon’s population is about 4,000 with a little more than 9,000 people county-wide. Dillon, while much younger and smaller than Durham, North Carolina where I live, has two things Durham doesn’t, a full-fledged local history museum and a sanctioned Tree Board.
Dillon has already inventoried its public trees and is completing a tree management plan. Hopefully, Durham may move in that direction soon. Dillon is proof that being conservative and overwhelmingly Republican isn’t mutually exclusive of loving trees and respecting your heritage.
Durham is proof that unparalleled levels of community passion and pride doesn’t mean that many important things aren’t being overlooked or neglected, such as trees and a museum worthy of its incredible history.
Republicans in the North Carolina General Assembly, eager to surrender trees and the state’s sense of place to billboard companies and mega-landfills for out-of-state haulers, could learn something from Montana’s members of that party.
Hell, they could learn something by just listening to 8-in-10 North Carolinians. Trees and other elements of scenic preservation are important to sense of place and economic vitality and even more to public health.
Montana is only 24% forested, mostly in the western third of the state which includes Dillon. This is also the part laced by the state’s 100 ranges of the Rockies.
But 60% of Montana is flat prairie land, part of the Northern Great Plains. Custer didn’t make his last stand in the old west or where “A River Runs Through It,” but on the plains stretching up from the Texas Panhandle, Kansas and Nebraska.
Even in the most mountainous regions of Montana and Idaho, one of the first things settlers did was plant trees, not for scenic preservation but to protect air and water quality, stem soil erosion, prevent flooding, lower temperatures around dwellings and livestock and to provide screens from wind and blowing particulates.
It was more often the miners who came not to make a homeland but for fortune, who denuded the landscape as they did entirely around Butte by the time Dillon was being founded in the 1880s, an hour’s drive south today.
However, Butte is battling back and today has a comprehensive urban forest management plan while North Carolina surrenders its sense-of-place to out-of-state billboard companies, even though billboards are an antiquated marketing tool now used by less than fifth of one percent of consumers.
Rocky Mountain pioneers and settlers such as eight sets each of my great-great and great-great-great grandparents also understood that trees were good for economic development and the evolution of sense of place, both on homesteads and in nearby towns and cities.
It isn’t easy in the Rockies to foster canopy because of the harsh climate, short growing seasons and insect infestations. So it seems that most people there don’t seem to take it for granted like we do in North Carolina where the enemies trees include human infestations.
Trees have nothing to do with political ideology and sacrificing them has everything to do with special interests. Eight-in-ten North Carolinians oppose permitting trees to be cut down by billboard companies. This includes nearly 7-in-10 Republicans who believe billboards should be a local decision.
Obviously this doesn’t include some lawmakers and now the Governor.
That didn’t stop Republican lawmakers, given plausible deniability by billboard lobbyists who told them it was just a tiny technical change, from using a backdoor to override tree and billboard ordinances statewide, spitting in the face of a constitutional amendment requiring the state to:
“…preserve as a part of the common heritage of this State its forests, wetlands, estuaries, beaches, historical sites, openlands, and places of beauty.”
One of North Carolina’s largest forestlands is along its roadsides.
It remains to be seen if North Carolinians will notice this defiance, let alone be outraged enough to take power back from those beholden to billboard and other destructive special interests. Even local governments seem complacent.
As a whole, North Carolinians seem unaware that things we take for granted such as this can be put at great risk. For the first time, I hear more people talk about leaving the state than loving it. For the first time in a quarter-of-a-century, it has crossed my mind too.
But this would only please those who are legislatively turning the clock back to a time when North Carolina was fodder for ridicule. It was only a year prior to passage of the conservation amendment that North Carolinians rejected efforts to perpetuate poll taxes and literacy tests for voting.
When North Carolinians finally rise up, the desecration wrought may move them to ban billboards altogether by constitutional amendment as several states have.
If not, they may seek to put more teeth in an amendment passed in 1971 to protect trees and waterways and other ecosystem capital or elect judges and lawmakers who will respect it.
For scenic preservation, these seem like the worst of times. But they may be the beginning of the best of times.