Protecting Grizzlies And Carroll Farms


August 29, 1993|By BRIAN SULLAM

Although Ralph Waldt lives about 30 miles west of Choteau, Montana, the burly, but gentle, mountain man could identify with a number of issues here in Carroll County.

Mr. Waldt lives on the Eastern Front of the Rocky Mountains, where the vast northern prairie meets the rugged and steep peaks of North America's highest chain of mountains. Outside his rustic two-story log cabin is some of the most beautiful and wild countryside left in the continental United States.

Numerous wild animals -- including the last remaining grizzly bears in the contiguous states -- live in the nearby forests, grasslands and alpine meadows. On an average day, a person can spot antelope, white-tailed deer and marsh hawks. On a good day, you might be able to see a herd of elk, a mountain goat or a coyote. On an exceptional day, you might see a mountain lion or a bear.

While Mr. Waldt, who is a naturalist with The Nature Conservancy, is happy to share his vast store of knowledge about the area's plant and animal life with visitors -- my family visited his ranch on a recent vacation -- he worries that these people from other parts of the country will love this land so much they will eventually want to build vacation homes. He is concerned that construction of homes, roads and other improvements will degrade this fragile environment and drive away the wildlife that attracted these people in the first place.

Carroll, in a way, faces the same dilemma. The county's rural vistas of rolling fields of corn, wheat and alfalfa are magnets for people who live in Maryland's cities and suburbs. But the notion of owning a little bit of country is also resulting in the disappearance of farmlands and the arrival of the suburban sprawl people want to escape.

Neither Montana nor Carroll County can slam the door on people seeking to move, but there are ways to accommodate these migrants without destroying the beauty that enticed them in the first place.

After years without any zoning controls, Montana is enacting subdivision laws that regulate the minimum size and the number of lots that can be created out of the state's large ranches and farms. While a number of people complain about the restrictions on their "property rights," many of the residents welcome the new laws.

At Flathead Lake in western Montana, there has been an explosion of lakeside homes that have increased the runoff and pollution of the lake's pristine waters.

While the potential problems resulting from this overdevelopment have been identified, there has not been an agreement on how to control development along Flathead Lake's shores. Some of the landowners resist any controls, saying they have the right to do what they want with their land. Others are afraid that even controlled growth will eventually turn into an uncontrolled development frenzy that will destroy Montana's largest lake.

In the meantime, hordes of people from California are pouring into western Montana. Ralph Waldt and others worry that by the time some

controls are established much of the area's wildlife will have disappeared.

In Carroll, the concern is not about wildlife -- most of that was killed or chased out of the county by early 19th century settlers -- but about preserving the land's agricultural character.

Carroll's residents recognize that development has the potential destroying all the farms in the southwest portion of the county, but there is opposition to the concept of creating densely populated villages to absorb the new houses, shops and offices. They are afraid that these villages will just become "another Columbia" and Carroll will turn into another Howard County, where farms have just about disappeared.

Decisions that are being made today will have long range implications both in Montana and Carroll County.

Once humans begin moving into wildlife habitats in Montana, certain creatures disappear, usually never to return. If Mr. Waldt's worst fears are realized and vacation homes start sprouting up along the Eastern Front of the Rockies, the seven to eight dozen grizzlies that currently range between the mountains and the prairie are likely to retreat into the mountains. Confined to a less hospitable habitat, the number of these

endangered bears will decline and they could eventually disappear, as they have across much of the western United States.

The consequences of building on Carroll's farm land will have much more impact on humans than on wildlife. Once Carroll's pastures and fields are converted to houses and shopping centers, they will never be grazed or cultivated again. A way of life that has existed since farmers first tilled the county's loamy soil two centuries ago will be gone.

In Montana, it is possible to accommodate a lot of people in

145,600 square miles, where the population density is about six people per square mile. The challenge is to locate them in areas where they do the least damage to the land so future generations can enjoy its beauty.

The same is true for Carroll (where the density is about 265 people per square mile). A large number of people can live on this land. But if the existing farms are to survive this onslaught of migration, a lot more thought must be given to minimizing the impact on the county's land.

If we are good stewards of the land, Mr. Waldt won't have to worry about the future of the Montana grizzly, and we won't have to worry about preserving Carroll's special rural character.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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