A never-ending story

Grappling with growth, Bozeman voters 
put local tax dollars to work for a
future that everyone can agree on.

Maddy Pope skims her fingers along the cut-out letters on a sign overlooking a small fishing hole at the confluence of Bozeman Creek and the East Gallatin River in Bozeman, Montana. Once forced through culverts and ditches, inhospitable to both fish and humans, the streams are now healthy, flowing rivers shaded by aspen and cottonwood trees; it’s a quiet spot to meditate, fish, or—as many Montanans prefer—both, simultaneously. The sign reads “Be Kind.”

Maddy Pope, a Trust for Public Land project manager until her 2019 retirement, says creating Story Mill Community Park was “really about Bozeman coming together collectively to think about what our ‘best self’ is.”

“Here. I can’t choose just one—it’s like asking which of my children I like best—but this is a significant spot in the park to me,” Pope says. The sign is in memory of Alex Diekmann, a conservationist who preserved more than 100,000 acres in the Northern Rockies during his time with The Trust for Public Land, before passing away in 2016.

For Pope, who was a Trust for Public Land project manager until her 2019 retirement, this is just one of countless special places within the 60-acre Story Mill Community Park. The park opened in 2019 following a seven-year community effort supported by The Trust for Public Land. Today, as residents of this once-small cowboy town grapple with the challenges and opportunities of being one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation, this sign—and the park it sits in—is a constant reminder to the growing county to listen to one another, and to be kind. “The longer I worked on this park, the more I realized that this was really about Bozeman coming together collectively to think about what our ‘best self’ is, and with that in mind, creating a place that we all share,” Pope says.

But creating a 60-acre multiuse park also costs money. So during the 2012 election, Pope and her colleagues at The Trust for Public Land helped Bozeman residents put a measure on the ballot that would raise funding for the park and other projects through local taxes. The bond measure, which was the first of its kind for Bozeman, passed with 73 percent support and generated over $4 million in public funding to create the park.

The 2012 vote that helped fund Story Mill Community Park was a product of The Trust for Public Land’s longstanding expertise in conservation finance. Now in its 25th year, the organization’s conservation finance program is responsible for over 600 such voter- and legislator-approved measures across the country, which have cumulatively generated over $80 billion in funding for parks, trails, open spaces, farmland, clean water, and wildlife.

Residents of Bozeman have been voting in support of conservation for a very long time, says David Weinstein, the Western conservation finance director in The Trust for Public Land’s Bozeman office.

“The portion of the federal budget allotted to parks and conservation has been in decline for at least a generation,” says Bill Lee, senior vice president of policy, advocacy, and government relations at The Trust for Public Land. “In that time, our success at helping communities plan and pass local and state funding measures has been a very important force for creating and upgrading parks and trails, giving more and more people access to a quality park.”

Lee supervises a team of campaign strategists with deep expertise in the process of designing and passing ballot measures. Their experience runs the gamut from targeted local campaigns to fund specific parks like Story Mill to statewide initiatives like Proposition 68, a $4 billion multiyear bond that California voters approved in 2018. Whatever the scale of the campaign, months of research, polling, coalition building, and voter outreach culminate on Election Day, when voters decide if they’re willing, in many cases, to raise their taxes to improve their close-to-home parks, trails, and open spaces. Since 1996, that decision has been an overwhelming “yes”: over 80 percent of the measures supported by The Trust for Public Land have passed.

“Despite the increasing divisions and heated rhetoric around politics in America over the last decade, we continue to see that voters agree on the importance of funding parks, trails, and natural areas,” says David Weinstein, Western conservation finance director in The Trust for Public Land’s Bozeman office. The 2012 measure was a first for the City of Bozeman, Weinstein notes, but residents have been voting in support of conservation for a long time. Gallatin County voters approved county-wide funding for conservation in 2000, 2004, and 2018. And Bozeman residents approved a district-wide parks measure in the 2020 election. “There is a clear through-line for [conservation] funding, from the people straight to the places they love. It’s an incredibly meaningful and powerful way for voters to make a statement about what’s important for their communities.”

“There is a clear through-line for [conservation] funding, from the people straight to the places they love.”

In addition to a successful 2012 ballot campaign, the effort to create Story Mill Community Park relied on generous donations from people around Montana and across the country. Community engagement for the park included everything from workshops and public meetings to community tours of the future park site. Schoolchildren even shared visions of their ideal playgrounds that a “yes” vote could help bring to reality. “Here in Montana, the outdoors fuels our economy by way of tourism and recreation. And access to parks and public lands is linked with better mental and physical health outcomes across the state,” says Weinstein. “Voters in Bozeman understand these benefits really well, and know that investing their tax dollars in a project like Story Mill Community Park will pay off in so many ways in the future.”

Today, Bozeman is among the fastest-growing municipalities in the nation. But it hasn’t always been that way. With its fertile soil and abundance of water, the Gallatin Valley has sustained Indigenous peoples, including the Blackfeet, Sioux, and Crow, for thousands of years. It wasn’t until the early 1860s, when nonnative travelers in the region discovered gold, that permanent settlements sprang up. Many longtime residents remember living in a remote, tight-knit community, surrounded by farmland as far as the eye could see.

The latest population boom began in earnest about 20 years ago, as the local economy began to diversify from its farming and ranching roots. Since then, Bozeman has emerged as a hub for tech companies, manufacturing, and tourism, and it has been the fastest-growing “micropolitan” area in the nation for four consecutive years. The city’s 4.25 percent growth rate has intensified during the pandemic as remote workers around the country jump on the opportunity to live and recreate in the picturesque valley.

Meanwhile, the community is wrestling with the challenges of fast-paced development: where there was once competition for jobs, local businesses are now struggling to keep employees who can’t afford housing in town. Trails that once provided solitude are crowded every day of the week, and the time it takes to drive across town has tripled due to the increase in traffic.

The latest population boom in Bozeman began in earnest about 20 years ago.

By 2012, “Our community was reaching the realization that Bozeman was at a tipping point,” Pope says. Was the city on a one-way path to inequality and opportunistic development, at risk of losing the very values that are attracting new residents in the first place? Or could the community grow in a way that creates economic opportunities for longtime residents while welcoming new people who share a very Bozeman-like desire to connect with the outdoors?

Brian Best, a longtime Bozeman resident, says he is “happy the land ended up being conserved in some way.”

A 60-acre site on the outskirts of town known to longtime locals as Story Mill presented a great opportunity for Bozeman residents to ensure access to parks and the outdoors as the region continues to develop. Originally a wetland, the area has historically been a corridor for wildlife to move between the Bridger and Gallatin mountains. In 1882 Nelson Story, an early pioneer and one of the first nonnative settlers of Bozeman, built a water-powered mill here, along with the largest grain elevator in the state, draining and filling in much of the wetlands to make way for barns. Operators abandoned the mill in the 1950s and it sat in disrepair for several decades. Meanwhile, a mobile home community arose on the site, providing affordable housing for over 100 families.

But in 2006, a developer bought the Story Mill property with plans to build 1,200 houses and 140,000 square feet of commercial space. The families living in mobile homes on the property were evicted. The 2008 recession scuttled the project, and the bank foreclosed on the property, leaving the future uncertain for the land and its former residents.

“After the developers went bankrupt, the land was just sitting there,” recalls Deb Love, Northern Rockies director of The Trust for Public Land at the time. “You would drive past and see all these vacant, abandoned trailers blowing around in the wind. It was a painful reminder of what this community had lost.”

Love was among the early advocates of the plan to transform Story Mill into a park—and from the beginning, the group pushed to include affordable housing in the plan. Today, eight acres at the edge of the park are set aside for affordable housing in response to the intensifying housing crunch that continues to squeeze families out of the valley. Crews broke ground on a 62-unit mixed-income development in April—a promising step toward closing the growing gap in Bozeman’s affordable housing supply.

Brian Best sits in a bird blind in Story Mill Community Park’s 40-acre nature preserve. He lowers his binoculars that have been focused on a chickadee popping in and out of a birdhouse in an aspen tree. “I used to live just over there,” he says, pointing toward an open field. Best has been a Bozeman resident for 16 years and has witnessed this land change drastically. He knows this area like the back of his hand. “I’ve been coming out here to watch the birds just about every day for as long as I can remember,” says Best.

“The land was littered and in need of restoration, but all the kids could see were the cattails and sandhill cranes—they were all focused on the possibility.”

Along with the 40-acre nature sanctuary with almost a mile of restored river, Story Mill visitors can stroll through wetlands, past multiple playgrounds, a climbing boulder, community garden, fishing access, and a dog park. Each part of the park reflects the desires and priorities of the community, says Mitchell Overton, director of parks and recreation for the City of Bozeman. “After the bond passed, we spent a solid twelve months designing, visioning, collecting public input, and holding public meetings and workshops before breaking ground on the project.”

Deb Love remembers how Maddy Pope hosted a group of kids out on the land to envision what they wanted in the park. “The land was littered and in need of restoration, but all the kids could see were the cattails and sandhill cranes—they were all focused on the possibility,” she says.

A group of elementary-aged children walks in between raised beds filled with a variety of vegetable plants, from kale to cucumber to summer squash. It’s early June and the lettuce and kale are sprouting. One of the kids leans over, examining how an insect has chewed through a kale plant. Another takes a bite of a chive. It’s a hot day and the kids soon retreat to the back of the community garden, where the flower beds turn to mulched ground and young fruit trees, shrubs, and bushes provide more shade.

Jill Holder is director of the Gallatin Valley Food Bank, which helps feed an average of 1,160 households each week throughout Southwest Montana. The organization also manages the garden at Story Mill, and since the park opened in 2019, Holder’s group has used the space as one of several locations for distributing free lunches to children and teens 18 and under. “The park provides a safe place where kids can stay active,” says Holder. “And for those who may not have access to it at home, they get a free and healthy meal.”

Visitors to Story Mill Community Park can stroll through wetlands and enjoy multiple playgrounds, the community garden, fishing access, and even a dog park.

“I’m just happy the land ended up being conserved in some way,” says Brian Best, back at the bird blind. “It’s very peaceful, and wildlife is still able to use it as a corridor.” Right on cue, a black bear saunters into the aspen grove, looking back toward Brian before scrambling up a tree. A man passing by on his bicycle stops on the trail and watches from afar. “Wow, we are so blessed to get to witness this,” he says.

That’s part of what sets this park apart from others. Just as it is the confluence of two rivers, it’s a place where Montana’s wild spaces meet with a growing population in a shared space. It doesn’t always work perfectly, but it’s an important step to keep Bozeman connected to its natural surroundings and bring a growing community together.

“Public parks like this are amazing because no matter where you’re from or what your background is, you get this beautiful public space to enjoy,” says Overton, Bozeman’s parks director. “In such a short time the park has become an integral part of our community. It’s hard to believe it hasn’t been here forever.”

About the author
Sophie Tsairis

Sophie Brett Tsairis is a freelance journalist and writer specializing in conservation and outdoor adventure. Hailing from the coast of Maine, she set down roots in Montana in 2015. Sophie has a master’s degree in Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism from the University of Montana and writes to help bridge the communication gap between scientists and the public.

@sbtsairis

This story first appeared in the fall/winter 2021 issue of Land&People magazine, an exclusive benefit to Trust for Public Land members. Join today and never miss an issue.

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