There's a cloud in the Big Sky Montana: The High Plains state likes its rugged individuality, but not in the extreme.

April 06, 1996|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN NATIONAL STAFF Staff Writer Mike Bowler contributed to this story.

With anti-government protesters holed up on an eastern Montana ranch and the suspected Unabomber flushed from a remote mountaintop hide-out this week, there's talk in Big Sky country of changing the state motto.

Welcome to Montana. It's Where You're Wanted.

The Last Best Place to Hide.

One listener to a Missoula radio station offered this gem: At Least Our Cows Are Sane.

Of late, Montanans have had more than their share of national publicity. And it's not over the glacial beauty of the Flatheads, the gray wolves in Yellowstone or the placid rivers that run through it. First came the FBI's arrest of two Freemen, members of a gun-toting band of tax protesters living on a secluded ranch in Jordan. A stakeout of the compound continues as federal officials try to persuade the others to surrender.

Then Wednesday, federal officials raided a one-room cabin just west of the Continental Divide and suspected its bearded, reclusive inhabitant of masterminding an 18-year bombing campaign. Life in the headlines has got Montanans wondering and worrying, joking and jawing.

"It's a pain in the backside," says John "Frenchy" Lafont, a retired chef in Roundup, Mont., who runs the city's Mountain Man Rendezvous, a gathering devoted to the customs of 18th century woodsmen and trappers. "We don't need that kind of notoriety."

"Don't ask me why Montana," says Ken Toole, executive director of the Montana Human Rights Network. "About six years ago we had a potassium spill in the entire water supply. Ever since then, people have been kind of wacky."

He's kidding of course. A Montana native, Mr. Toole knows the state's history, its progressive political tradition and strong labor heritage, its spirit of rugged individualism.

"The idea that Montana is a bastion for right-wing political thinking is just not so," says Mr. Toole, whose organization monitors extremist groups. "The facts and the history don't support the idea that Montana's politics are right wing. Our [state] Constitution guarantees a right to a clean environment, it protects cultural traditions."

And yet, Mr. Toole knows quite well that a "certain influx of hard-right-wing people" has moved to Montana and other neighboring Western states in the past decade. Be they survivalists in Idaho or militia men in Montana. At the same time, Montana has drawn hundreds of Californians who want to flee the crime and congestion of big city life.

It's a state of contrasts. Celebrities like Ted Turner and Mel Gibson own ranches here. But their neighbors are most likely natives such as retired wheat farmer Clarence Phillips, whose father homesteaded in north central Montana.

This is a place not only with its own state bird (the Western Meadowlark), but its own native dinosaur, a duck-billed called the Maiasaura Peeblesorum. It's a land of vast beauty whose residents earn their living from the land, farming, timber, mining. Montanans -- and not only environmentalists -- want to preserve the state's natural resources.

"This is a great place to live. Big Sky country," says Bessie Hoell, 84, a retired state employee and homemaker who lives in the state capital of Helena. "We have great weather. Other parts of the country had a lot worse winter than we have. We don't get tornadoes. We don't get cyclones. So far we've been earthquake free since 1935."

A place for free spirits

Kirk Hansen returned six years ago after living in Phoenix.

"I didn't like the big city crime and I didn't want to raise my kids in the cement cities of Arizona," says Mr. Hansen, who lives in Kalispell. "I was raised being able to hunt and fish and boat from my back door. Everybody thinks Montana is the Wild West. To me, it's always been a place where free spirits like to go.

"If you want to be secluded and in the backwoods, this is definitely a place you can do that," says Mr. Hansen, who manages tourist properties in historic Virginia City. "The Unabomber is prime example. He lived there [in Lincoln] for 10 years and nobody even knew what he was doing."

If folks are respectful of their neighbor's privacy, they are also neighborly in the old-fashioned way. People don't just talk with one another, they "visit."

"Montanans are use to relying on and helping each other. That's how we've survived over the long haul," says Gary Spaeth, a native Montanan and lawyer who works in Helena. "When someone is in trouble, the community, the neighbors, still turn out."

But Bill Lombardi, who moved to Montana from Maryland eight years ago, doesn't buy the premise that "this isn't Montana."

"This is Montana," says Mr. Lombardi, who works in the state auditor's office in Helena. "We have to find out why it is. If we want it to be this way, so be it. If we don't, then we have to do something about it."

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