The Gallatin Valley is truly a great place to build a life. As John Baden recently observed, the community is growing richer in civic culture, and access to high-quality amenities is easy. But might it also be an “ecological trap”? If it is, let’s understand it in hopes of helping folks avoid it.
Here are some attractive features of our community. While downhill skiing at Bridger Bowl is beyond the economic reach of many, ski touring Bozeman Creek or hiking in Yellowstone is manageable. Thanks to the traditional BSF ski swap, a family can outfit themselves with cross-country gear for a couple hundred dollars. Each week we choose among lectures, performances, and public fora, many for free. Is this civic and community quality threatened by our success?
Subjective magazine ratings like The Ten Best Towns to - fill in the blank - and books like Richard Karlgaard's Life 2.0 and David Brooks' Bobos in Paradise, create a buzz for some towns. Communities like Bozeman prosper because the buzz attracts the attention of mobile, well-educated people. Many nonprofits popularize and advocate the resultant New West economy and the changes it brings. The area Chamber of Commerce promotes jobs of all sorts to foster local growth. It celebrates our role in the New West phenomenon.
To the outsider Bozeman seems a good choice for relocation. Newcomers arrive with lofty expectations; they too will join our thriving economy. Some will misread the social and economic cues that emanate from our “boosterism” approach to community development. The population surge of recent years indicates how many people are willing to risk a large personal investment by moving here to make a life. Some are successful; others are not. Why?
Here's the unfortunate reality of places like the Gallatin Valley: appearances can be deceptive. Our little town can be a difficult place to make it. Some overestimate their personal resources; they lack the education, capital, or entrepreneurial skill for success. They may not be sufficiently adaptable to the local economy and working at poor-quality jobs at low rates of pay soon gets old.
Folks who cannot participate in the recreational and civic lifestyle that attracted them become frustrated. Those with limited personal resources find themselves working a job (or two) at a regional shopping complex, unable to buy a house and build personal equity in the economic system. They slowly sink into unsatisfying equilibrium; they can neither get ahead nor change their condition. They become the working poor in an accelerating economy that inevitably leaves them behind. They are left out of the community conversation on local governance, growth management, and schools. Civic engagement requires time and resources the poor simply don't possess.
Poverty is growing in counties like Gallatin. High expectations are met with failure to find a decent job at a decent wage and an affordable house in which to make a home. In Gallatin County, a family must spend 3.1 years' worth of median income to buy a median-priced residence. That ranks Gallatin County at 130th in a list of over 3100 counties in the U.S. -- the top 4 percent. As so many can attest, Gallatin wages are nowhere near the top 4 percent of the nation. In fact, Montana’s wage rate ranks 46th.
An ecological trap occurs when an organism is so miscued by the natural setting that it fails to thrive and reproduce. The result is a “population sink.” Similarly, individuals may find themselves in the ecological trap of living in a community from which escape is difficult as they spiral into a vortex of financial and social stagnation. At the least, there will be an inevitable erosion of community vitality; at the worst, those left out of the boom will be attracted to fringe groups and their children drift toward the underclass.
If we want to preserve the special qualities that foster civic culture and vitality, we should be wary of community development schemes that neglect the emergent underclass in rural communities. As part of the new “code of the West,” we should be careful not to generate false expectations of success. To fail to do so will make the Gallatin Valley a poorer place in which to live.