The Last, Best Place

Kris Drummond

What does it mean to be “The Last Best Place,” exactly? That combination of words has confused me since I was a kid. I can’t help but feel that a comma is needed between last and best. Otherwise it kind of reads like the opposite of best, aka the worst. And as people flock to Montana from states that were presumably “the best” but no longer hold the title (us being the “last” of the best places, after all), it seems like a good time to determine what is actually meant by our unofficial state motto. What makes Montana the best, and what makes all the other places not? Or is it the other way around?

Obviously, I know “The Last Best Place” is an endorsement. There’s a pride to this state, centered around the values of open space, low population, strong community, and natural beauty. Montanan’s live with a sense of stewardship for the environment and there’s an air of resistance to the corporate monoculture that’s smothering the world. We’ve got a unique balance of conservative and progressive values, cowboys and hippies and ski bums and intellectuals occupying the same hangouts, and somehow, it melds into a cohesion that I haven’t felt other places. There’s something intangible about Montana that makes it what it is, and I think many of us wonder if that mysterious something can withstand the influx of people and money that “The Last Best Place” is currently experiencing.

As I investigated the phrase, I discovered a funny irony. In 2002, a wealthy businessman named David E. Lipson, from Las Vegas, started a luxury resort ranch and attempted to trademark the phrase, which meant only his ranch, filled with wealthy, out­of­state clientele, would be “The Last Best Place.” Luckily, his proposition was shot down in the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals and legislation was enacted by senators Max Baucus and Jon Tester to ensure the phrase would stay universal.

Lipson was torched in state publications for years, and the issue was even written about in the New York Times, so the story is nothing new. But it does illustrate the tension that many, at least here in Bozeman, seem to be feeling as the city expands and the once­sleepy cowboy/ski vibe gives way to...well, it’s not quite clear yet. So we return to the question: What does it mean to be “The Last Best Place,” and how do we balance those values with the immigration of people who also want to get a little piece of the good life our state motto advertises?

The conversation has probably come up for almost everyone around town: Some variety of “Bozeman is growing out of control...expletive.” For long­standing locals, the changes seem unwelcome at best. And as someone who grew up in Bozeman, the shifting dynamics of the city are undeniable. Explosive development, busier roads, higher prices, more crime, even a bid for the winter olympics­­all the dollar­driven trademarks of large population centers­­have arrived on our doorstep.

But at the same time, look at the positive things such growth brings with it. Good music, multi­cultural food, higher wages and more jobs, human diversity. Bozeman offers opportunities that would have been unthinkable even ten years ago, and regardless of how much expansion is going on, the mountains are still never more than 20 minutes away. We have few enough police reports to read in the daily newspaper. The tallest building in town is a campus dorm.

I guess my point is that it’s all changing, all the time, and really, Montana doesn’t belong to anyone.

If we call it “The Last Best Place,” what did the Native Americans before us call it? Who decides what Montana is or is not?

It’s easy to grumble like a broken grandpa on “the good old days,” but really, were the good old days all that great? We have things like the internet, (increasing) social justice, and global mobility now. I can order toilet paper on my phone. So perhaps, if change is inevitable, it can be embraced and worked with, rather than resisted. Maybe “The Last Best Place” can keep the title, even while it transforms into something new. And hopefully whoever is officially in charge of the unofficial state motto can add a comma so the confusion of whether Montana is the best or the worst can finally be solved.

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