Saturday, July 28, 2007

Codes, schmodes: Western Exposure Special Edition

Reporting from SW Montana:


I spent the last few days tooling around the vast expanse of Big Sky country scoping out rocks for a new project. I hadn't been to these parts for around 10 years. A lot is the same- tiny towns dot ribbons of asphalt that string together valley after valley of ranch land. Even country radio hasn't changed much- still a lot of Garth Brooks and Shania Twain.

The difference is the development. Condos where pasture land used to be. Shopping malls instead of hayfields. And weird hybrid fast-food joints (e.g., Kent-Taco-Huts) at interstate exits that used to be vacant. All in the name of progress.

In particular I got insider insight on a new exclusive condo-ski-golf-hunt-fish resort being built near Bozeman: Moonlight basin. From their website:

Finally, over a year later, after risking everything they owned, the three partners beat out bids from various national interests to secure the land.

Exciting! And scary. Heavily leveraged with the loud ticking of the “interest clock,” the partners quickly formed the company Moonlight Basin Ranch, L.P., and assembled a team of forestry and water specialists, wildlife biologists, and geologists [emphasis added] to tell them what they had and how to manage it.

What they had was a 40-square mile valley bordered on all four boundaries by towering mountain peaks and immense mountain ranges. While historically an abundant region, the land was now tattered and its wildlife populations scattered. The partners had a big challenge ahead of them.

Through Moonlight Basin Ranch, the partners began engaging in careful, limited real estate development on the property. They had made the commitment to work to protect as much as 75-80% of the property, so through sales to conservation buyers, they immediately placed over half of their new holdings into permanent conservation easements.

At the same time, after consulting with their experts, the partners began carefully clearing dense, biologically uniform stands of lodge pole pine; created new logging practices that minimized damage to top soils; replanted native plants in areas to create more bio-diverse sections; and meticulously cleared other areas to generate mountain meadows and grasslands for deer, elk, moose, and other animals.

The effects of these actions became immediately apparent and Moonlight Basin was on its way to recovery. But one more twist in the story remained.

While consulting with wildlife experts, Lee and his partners were surprised and pleased to learn that ski trails on the property would serve to enhance wildlife in the area. Additional selective clearing to make the trails combined with a resurgence of native grasses could actually sustain more wildlife in the spring and summer months. And people could enjoy the land in the winter.

So in the mid-1990s, the partners built a small lift and trail network and over time have continued to develop and expand it. Not only has this allowed for the creation of a celebrated destination resort, but it’s also laid the groundwork for Moonlight Basin’s continued environmental renewal.

Today, this unique valley's future is bright. The elk population on the property has nearly doubled in the past decade. Moose populations have tripled. Areas that were timbered over 30 years ago have been cleaned up. And new growth forests are over 14 feet tall.

Aside from the startling symbiosis between wildlife and ski-trails, one other thing stands out in this synopsis, geologically speaking. The terrain of this place and hence its geology - bordered on 4 sides by towering mountain peaks. These peaks are formed in significant part by Cretaceous shale. So basically this place is a big bowl with really crumbly sides. Recent landslides and debris flow deposits are all over the place (source: insider info to remain confidential unless under subpoena) and the roads in and out and around the development are just being built right over top of them. It really is not fit for development, but somehow, it happened. But wait you say, aren't there building codes? Surely in a place so geologically unstable, restrictions would exist. All I know is that the map produced by the geologist hired by Moonlight basin is going to be different than the one produced by the state's geologist. So code enforcement depends on a geologic map, and the map depends on the science behind the mapping. This is why we need to have skilled mappers around who can see what others miss.

The story of Moonlight basin goes on:
Lee Poole sums up Moonlight Basin’s focus in the new millennium: “We’ve raised our children, and now our grandchildren, here and we want to give back.”
Give back? Not exactly. You can get the splendor of Moonlight basin for a price. This resort is gated and is members only. I hope The West doesn't end up diced up into little postage stamp parcels with the gems set aside for those of the seven-figure tax bracket. It just seems that there are some places where humans should leave no mark and other places that should belong to everyone.

Oh well- one day Moonlight basin will just fill up with sediment - maybe then the gates won't matter anymore!