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The New West: Gallatin Canyon book brings timely appreciation for busy corridor

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Author Duncan T. Patten and his book, which is both a fine tribute to the history and beauty of the Gallatin Canyon and a reminder that all human decisions have consequences, some that can never be erased. PHOTO BY TODD WILKINSON

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Columnist

In a region known for its scenic drives through the mountains, this one, too, ranks right up there, wending literally along the banks of a blue-ribbon trout stream, connecting the fastest growing micropolitan area in America to a quainter western entrance to Yellowstone National Park.

Two-lane U.S. Highway 191 is a marvel of engineering that’s about to get a major upgrade and yet, paradoxically, the more conducive it becomes to carrying higher loads of traffic, the poorer it bodes for the wild sense of nature through which it circuits.

Nothing transforms wild places more, eminent conservation biologist Reed Noss has said, than a road built into previously little-developed landscapes. Indeed, the bulging presence of Big Sky, which is steadily displacing one of the last great concentrations of large mammals in the Lower 48, would not exist were it not for U.S. Highway 191.

Ranked among the most dangerous roads in Montana, with white cross markers adorning its asphalt, and every year notching grim statistics related to road-killed elk, deer, bighorn sheep, bears and even wandering pets, Highway 191 has a notorious reputation, especially during icy winters. 

And yet this stretch, which brazen semi drivers use as a shortcut for hauling freight, also has a storied history, one recounted with brilliant and inspiring detail by Gallatin Canyon resident Duncan T. Patten. Patten’s book, “The Gallatin Way to Yellowstone” has been sitting on my desk for a while, becoming dog-eared and marked up with highlighted passages from its pages.

Long before Highway 191 became the hair-raising experience it can be, parts of it were old trails for indigenous people moving to and from the mountains we know today as the Gallatins and the interior of what became Yellowstone. Subsequently, after Yellowstone was founded 150 years ago in 1872, it was given the poetic sounding moniker, “The Gallatin Way” and it became the focus of continuous upgrades.

First it was turned into a muddy pathway for stagecoaches, advocated by the Bozeman Chamber of Commerce, to give tourists a shortcut to the back west door of the world’s first national park and its geyser fields. Then it provided access for dude ranches, livestock growers, prospectors and timber people. Over time, it became an economic lifeline, of sorts, and then, following the birth of Big Sky, a road underbuilt for the high volume of traffic it holds—levels that today resemble the bumper-to-bumper commuter traffic of any urban suburb.

Unfortunately, state and federal highway engineers who now want to straighten, widen and expand the footprint of U.S. Highway 191 also stand accused of being callous, or at best indifferent, to the added negative impacts of their work.

One passage struck me in the early pages of Patten’s book: “Long-term residents of the canyon and locations farther south often viewed Big Sky as a blemish on the beauty of the canyon, while others now see it as an integral part of today’s canyon and the Gallatin Way,” Patten writes. “Change is normal—everything changes over time; thus, how the canyon and the Gallatin Way have changed is a lesson to recognize that we ‘cannot burn back the clock.’”

Lest anyone mistake Patten’s intention, he is not a booster for the kind of development that continues to erupt largely unchecked in the Gallatin Canyon, nor is he condoning the thoughtless forms of commerce that continue to exact a toll. He is imploring all of us to pay better attention, to appreciate the canyon not as a Colorado-like thoroughfare leading to a major resort, but heed that this road actually passes through the northwestern corner of Yellowstone National Park.

As I often do, let’s highlight the significance of this: Yellowstone and the Gallatin Range hold all of the major mammals that were on the landscape prior to the arrival of Europeans on the continent. Patten wants travelers to take stock of this as they motor through the canyon—slowing down, being more attentive and knowledgeable, soaking in that amazing fact.

Patten is not only a fine writer; he’s an astute ecological thinker, counted among the best in the West. Wielding a specialty in hydro-ecology, he’s known for examining how river ecosystems—the most biologically rich parts of landscapes—function. During his career, he’s been involved with a number of different studies on Greater Yellowstone issues undertaken by the prestigious National Academies of Sciences.

Most of all, Patten, his wife, Eva, and their family have been denizens of the Gallatin Canyon, owning a historic ranch themselves and their care for the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has turned them into avid conservationists.

It’s fair to say that likely the majority of people, who cumulatively log millions of miles passing through the Gallatin Canyon every year, are unfamiliar with the history of how the road beneath their tires came to be. Patten’s book and its trove of imagery provides a fascinating remedy for their lack of awareness and ought to be required reading for all public land managers, realtors, developers, and anyone headed to ski, hike, hunt, fish, ride mountain bike or horseback, or even race between Bozeman and West Yellowstone.

“The Gallatin Way to Yellowstone” invites us to ponder how we can secure more respectful treatment of nature by pondering the past and should be on every bookshelf.

Todd Wilkinson is the founder of Bozeman-based Mountain Journal and a correspondent for National Geographic. He authored the book “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek,” featuring photography by famed wildlife photographer Thomas D. Mangelsen, about Grizzly Bear 399.

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