A shared sense of place evolves from dialogue in an atmosphere of mutual respect for differing views.
How much do you know about the people and places that surround you and the forces that affect your daily life? What does it mean (to you and others) to live in this place? How can you and your neighbors work together to adapt to the forces of change to protect what is important to you?
The result of this exploration is a shared sense of place. A shared sense of place is a large jigsaw puzzle in three dimensions — urban, rural, and public land. Your job is to find where you fit into the whole.
The venue for the exchange of ideas can take many forms — newspaper articles, Web sites and other online media, public meetings and presentations, informal get-togethers, events, and tours. Each forum has a different way of illuminating the local situation.
Over the last decade or so, environmental groups have decided that farms and ranches are a better alternative land use than subdivisions for preserving open space and wildlife. The Greater Yellowstone Coalition, the Sonoran Institute, and the Gallatin Valley Land Trust brought in speakers and assisted in local discussions of growth and development issues. On March 6th, GVLT and the Sonoran Institute sponsored a talk by Charles Wilkerson of the University of Colorado Law School. Wilkerson noted that environmentalists are doing good work but are failing to connect with the public and engage local public opinion in the process.
The Planning Department and the County Commissioners have worked for the last 15 to 20 years to bring growth issues to the forefront of public awareness. They researched "tools" used in other communities. They held focus groups and offered proposals for public comment. Two Open Space Bond initiatives passed and the money used to protect farmlands in conservation easements and buy 100 acres for a regional park. This work was not in vain. Gravel pit development is now pushing us toward countywide zoning. Gravel pit owners recognize that they need to participate in the dialogue with county officials and homeowners to work out a solution. We have to learn to be good neighbors to each other.
Public agencies and businesses have a place in the dialogue. The U.S. Forest Service and the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks joined together to put forward "Montana Challenge." The Montana Challenge is to "manage our fish and wildlife for their traditional and deeply personal meaning to Montana and their ability to attract the economic activity vital to the State's prosperity." It was presented to community leaders and chambers of commerce around the state. It's rare when federal and state agencies find a common goal and reach out to local business leaders for comment and support.
The Yellowstone Business Partnership brings together businesses that depend on the health of the wild land environment in the Yellowstone-Teton region. Business members tend to be connected to the tourist industry in some way, but not all. The partnership believes the environment is the cornerstone of the economy, parks are our future, and conservation is essential. They seek to develop "sustainable capitalism" based on the natural resources of the region.
Events provide windows to unfamiliar aspects of the local scene. Rural and urban residents rub elbows at the Manhattan Potato Festival, Summer (4-H) Fair, and Wild West Winterfest. Four-H and FFA programs involve youth and their parents in urban and rural issues. In spring, the Gallatin Valley Agriculture Committee sponsors Farm Fair for fourth graders countywide. Montana Outdoor Science School holds a Snow Festival, Watershed Festival, RaptorFest and outdoor science classes for children and adults.
"Dialogue" can be an experience like shopping or dining out. Farmer's Markets and the Community Food Co-op have increased awareness of locally produced food. The Co-op and Helena-based AERO sponsor farm tours. The Corporation for the Northern Rockies in Livingston and the Chef's Collaborative have worked to get local food into area restaurants and Yellowstone Park. The horticulture program at Montana State University started their own Towne Farm to contribute to the Food Bank, Farmer's Market, and MSU Food Service. The Gallatin Valley Independent Business Association promotes the value of "investing" in small businesses through "buy local" campaigns.
Periodicals and online media have a role in the dialogue. The Belgrade News has done an excellent job of covering water, agricultural, and small-town issues in Gallatin County. Compared to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, it really does cover a different "beat."
The online magazine NewWest.Net is unique in that it offers the opportunity for reader comment. Recent articles have dealt with the issues of countywide zoning, power lines and corridors to serve resort areas like Big Sky, and the threats of wild fires to homes in the wild land-urban interface. And, the Gallatin Grassroots Forum encourages residents to get involved in public policy issues with reminders of opportunities for public input.
Tours allow participants to see the world through another's eyes. The scenery is the same, but the interpretations differ. The Greater Gallatin Watershed Council has been very effective in getting people of diverse backgrounds together for bus tours.
Last summer, GGWC sponsored a tour of the West Gallatin (Irrigation) Canal from its source at the mouth of Gallatin Canyon for planners, realtors, and developers. Irrigators have complained that developers have neither understood nor respected the legal rights accompanying irrigation ditch infrastructure. The West Gallatin River has 37 ditch companies with extensive infrastructure that has been in place for 100 years. The "show me" trip was co-sponsored by the Gallatin Conservation District, the Gallatin Local Water Quality District and the Association of Gallatin Agricultural Irrigators. During the tour, participants heard the perspectives of planners, lawyers, state water rights officials, and hydrologists. As a result, realtors, planners, and irrigators have begun looking for ways to work together.
Each encounter with new perspectives leads to a clearer image of the total picture of sense of place and our role in it. Anyone can initiate the dialogue. Anyone can join in.