Ask a lifelong resident of Montana what the greatest threat to this state is. The answer will probably be “Californians,” usually followed by a spirited rant about how they’re infiltrating local politics and conspiring to destroy the Montana way of life. Hyperbole or not, this highlights a growing divide in the demographics of this state. Some would claim the old ways of Montana are dying, but that isn’t the truth. The values, lifestyle and people are diversifying.
According to a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks report, the West was the fastest growing region of the United States during the 1990s, with a 20.1 percent growth in Montana alone. Most of that growth was, of course, in Montana’s cities.
California coincidentally experienced higher rates of emigration during this same time period. Of course, this isn’t just Californians. People from all over the country, and the world, have been moving into Montana at steady rate. The state simply doesn’t belong to just the ranchers anymore.
No one sees this diversification of the state better than us, the students of the universities. Students hailing from Montana meet people coming in from both East and West Coasts, and everywhere else in between.
Not only that, many of us get what is our first exposure to foreign cultures via exchange students. We are surrounded by diversity, so shifting tides seem as natural as excessive weight gain during freshman year.
The same couldn’t be said for old, lifelong ranchers though. How can someone who has lived for the development and use of the land around them not be just a bit offended when a family from California buys land and makes no use of it, or watches prime farmland be consumed by housing developments and chain stores? Yet at the same time, the agricultural lot doesn’t have a monopoly on the operations of the state.
The ranches and farms that characterize this state no doubt provide the gears for the whole operation to run on, but at the same time, new faces provide a much-needed injection of character and, on top of that, diversify the state economically as well. They contribute to Montana just the same; they should in no way be denied an opportunity to voice their concerns for the state’s political issues, from the environmental to the economic.
So the controversy all comes down to finding common ground. Residents both lifelong and new must learn to see eye to eye for the betterment of everyone. I’ve seen both sides of the coin growing up. I was born in North Carolina, but moved to a small ranching town in southeast Montana when I was 9 and lived there until graduating high school.
In just the 10 years I’ve lived here, I’ve seen the state change significantly. Yet I would say the growth has been for the better. There is room under the Big Sky for all types of people; they just have to learn to function together.