Time was, the Bitter Root Valley (its original spelling) became paired with Glacier National Park as the northern and southern pillars of western Montana.
Promoters luring investors and apple growers to America's "Little Switzerland," praised the Bitter Root River and Range as untarnished opportunity. Here, an investment — even a staggering $10,000 an acre — could be justified, crowed expert agronomists enlisted as authorities.
Abundant water, rich soil and mild, predictable weather were declared as ideal for orchards and nurseries nestled in and surrounded by-such the bonus — the most agreeable mountain scenery found anywhere in the West. Those glowing accounts produced by land agents and railroad publicists echo widely today: "The Last Best Place. Find Paradise Under Our Big Sky. Here, America's West lives on, as it was meant to be. The Beautiful Bitterroot."
Now, in 2018 - a century later - my unvarnished impression? Well, I'm concluding the fabled Bitterroot Valley is no longer "Little Switzerland".
My camera and I tour the backroads of western Montana in search of livestock and pastoral settings. We drive by homesteads and hobby farms first encountered in the 1990s. Nice places, displaying hopes and good husbandry. Stock farms and little ranches where parents felt confident their 4-H kids would blossom. Families launching an FFA senior leaving the "home place" for a future somewhere "in ag."
Regrettably, a few of those favorite places have tumbled downhill. Fences unmended; weedy meadows overgrown and untended; junked vehicles in the yard; dead appliances on the porch.
What happened here? Financial setbacks, a health crisis, opioid or meth addiction?
In the 1980s, I conducted a tour of the Simmen Valley of the Switzerland mentioned above and birthplace to today's Simmental beef breed. Those touring with me marveled at the well-groomed pastures and fields, the manicured farmsteads dotting the hillsides in picture-perfect tableaus. "Postcards don't do this place justice," said one ranch woman.
Could the same be said of today's Bitterroot Valley? My recent and disagreeable photographs taken along Ravalli County's Treece Gulch Road illustrate community decay. Malignancy on display. Through the viewfinder, one of the principal peaks of the Bitterroot Range — St. Mary's — is often framed by a blighted foreground.
Montana's Code Annotated describes "Community Decay" as ... "a public nuisance created by allowing rubble, debris, junk, or refuse to accumulate resulting in conditions that are injurious to health, indecent, offensive to the senses, or obstruct the free use of property so as to interfere with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property." MCA
7-5-2111. Note the terms, "indecent" and "offensive to the senses."
To its credit, Ravalli County, which serves much of Bitterroot country, offers the public an Environmental Health Department. Every Montana courthouse deserving our respect should house and support a staff dedicated to helping Montanans and their visitors enjoy "The Last Best Place." Here are a couple scenarios making us cringe:
I) A family meets its ride at the airport and is greeted by: "Well, how did y'all like Montana? Bet it was gorgeous."
"Well, nice enough in places but they're no different up there than we are. Lots of roadside trash and eyesores."
2) Another pulls into the drive and a neighbor asks, "Guess Montana was your trip's last best place, like they say?"
"Kind of. But, hey, they don't mow their weeds like we do here, and people seem to scatter junk cars around and about-right in front of the mountains."
Have you ever apologized for a neighbor's unsightly property? Or for an unkempt roadside?
Puzzling, isn't it, why Montanans flanked by the Bitterroots, the Sapphires, the Missions, the Absarokees cannot mimic their magnificent settings? Let's try this: Devote some decent husbandry toward celebrating the grandeur on our doorstep. How hard can it be?
From The National Nurseryman, April, 1913: "Montana has 40,000,000 acres of grazing land, 20,000,000 acres of forest reserve lands, more arable land than Illinois, more coal than Pennsylvania, and grander mountain scenery than Switzerland."
Let me ask: Would you be ashamed ... to host my Swiss farmers eager to visit The Bitterroot Valley and its "Little Switzerland"? I would.
James L. (Jim) Cotton of Stevensville is a ruralist, livestock photographer and novelist.