Conservation Efforts Hurt Students, Poor

One of the major problems that most students at Montana State University will face at some point during their lives is the tremendous economic consequences of the decisions of their parents and grandparents. Between systems like Social Security facing insolvency and our country amassing nearly $20 trillion in national debt, our generation will face large bills to pay unlike any other that has come before us. Is it worth it?

One decision that has been heralded in Bozeman for several decades now is the decision to use government bonds to pay local landowners millions of dollars in public money to promise to never develop their land and keep it permanently enshrined as “pristine” open space. The only problem with this? The complete lack of a willingness to develop and build more housing in the valley has created such an affordable housing shortage that students and the poor in Bozeman can barely afford to make ends meet.

Local news stories this year have highlighted the fact that less than one million dollars in funds are left of the $20 million that was financed through public debt to preserve open spaces in the Gallatin Valley. In addition to bonds that won’t be paid off for another 20 years, local officials have used federal matching funds to buy easements from owners that prevent the land from being developed and often permanently designates it for wildlife.

On the flip side, Bozeman is encountering a huge housing crisis that causes local families to have to spend large portions of their incomes just to have places to live. In addition to the high costs of housing, students are often taken advantage of by unscrupulous landlords, and end up taking out thousands of dollars in student loans just to cover basic costs like tuition, housing and food.  

While the rich in Bozeman generally have no problem paying higher taxes and housing costs, these cost of living increases hit the poor, middle-class and college students much harder. Add in increased costs for health care premiums from Obamacare and even more requests for additional taxes and debt for things like the new Law and Justice Center, and this makes for a recipe for real financial difficulties for the average Bozemanite.

Like most policies aimed at helping to preserve open spaces, financially the deals mostly end up as transfers to the already wealthy. The reality is that if you have a farm in the Gallatin Valley of any substantial size, you are already a millionaire. Is it really fair to shovel more debt onto the backs of students and the poor so that already wealthy large-landowners can receive even more taxpayer  money diverted through grandstanding politicians and environmental special interest groups?

While many people who come to college at MSU would love to stay and be able to raise families here, most end up leaving in part because the cost of living is so wildly out of proportion to wages in the valley. When Bozeman is adding between 3,000-4,000 people per year just in the city and hundreds more students at MSU per year, why isn’t affordable housing being pursued more aggressively by city and county commissioners? Is preventing more land from being developed when so many local residents have to rely on debt or working two or three jobs really helping the most vulnerable among us or the students who must take on debt to live here?  Would it really hurt local conservation efforts to designate one-third or one-quarter of these unused farmlands for affordable housing instead?

I grew up in Montana. I cherish the land I’ve been blessed to grow up on since it’s helped my family and me our entire lives through hunting, trapping, firewood, recreation, tourism and even what remains of jobs in the decimated timber industry.  

But our solutions can’t be entirely one-sided. We can’t believe such hysteria about public lands that we willingly place more burden on the backs of people who bear the worst brunt of the lack of affordable housing in Bozeman. If the only way we can preserve open spaces is through 20 years of corporately financed debt and $20 trillion in federal spending, we have to find another way. We need to bring some balance to the conversation that ensures our commitments to our land don’t come on the backs of the poor and college students who will shoulder those debts for generations to come.