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Op-Ed: Flood Stage

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Can conservation keep up with development?


On Sept. 17, the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce hosted the annual Big Sky Community Building Forum. 

Presenters from a variety of development entities, utilities providers and local nonprofits were each given 20 minutes to discuss upcoming projects they have coming down the pike. Five-star hotels, state-of-the-art wastewater-treatment plants, ski-in ski-out condos, and affordable housing were just some of the additions in the works.

After sitting through three hours of presentations, one thing was clear: the scale and pace of forthcoming land development should give us pause. Can we sustain all this growth without irrevocably damaging our prized natural resources?

It’s no secret that Big Sky is spectacular. Even with COVID-19, a public-health crisis most thought would slow local growth, our headwaters community is winning the West’s popularity contest. Everyone wants to be here, and who can blame them?

They’re drawn to Big Sky for many of the same reasons we all were at some point. Open space, beautiful vistas, ample recreation and a high quality of life. The question is whether we have the capacity to welcome them and those behind them with open arms. Will this land development push our fragile environmental resources beyond their breaking point? Has it already?

If it does, who will want to live along an impaired Gallatin River? Who will visit when there are no wild trout left to catch? Where will we get the household water we so often take for granted, and will it be of the high quality we need to stay healthy?

Big Sky already has a long history of water-quality issues, issues that have only been exacerbated by recent growth and higher and higher rates of visitation. We voted in May to upgrade the wastewater-treatment plant, and that is an important step in the right direction. But will it be enough? 

Instead of praising home-sale rates and property-value increases, should we be taking the time to implement communitywide environmental protections? Should we be enacting on a large scale the activities and projects outlined in the Big Sky Sustainable Watershed Plan? How much more abuse can the land abide before it starts to take instead of give?

Natural beauty is the only commodity Big Sky trades in, and the windfall produced by this singular landscape has benefited many—likely all—that live and work in our vacation community. Drastic measures needed to be taken earlier this year to guard against the predicted economic downturn brought on by COVID-19, and it’s not clear that we are out of the woods just yet. 

While building economic resilience is important, building environmental resilience is the only way to truly make Big Sky the community we all know it can be. We have the tools and we know the strategies—we need wholesale stakeholder buy-in, an investment similar to the millions upon millions being spent to bring more and more people to these treasured headwaters.

We need impactful environmental protections, and we need them now. We need to focus more on true community-building, and less on this community’s building.

David Tucker is the communications manager for the Gallatin River Task Force.

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