New Bicycle Crossing at Peach and Rouse Completely Unacceptable

The Montana Department of Transportation has recently reconstructed the Rouse Avenue corridor. At the intersection of Peach Street and Rouse, MDT has taken away the existing bike lanes on Peach Street to install two additional vehicle lanes.

Strava’s Global Heatmap shows that Peach Street is the most significant E-W corridor for cyclists anywhere East of 19th Avenue. This is an essential connection for cyclists to access the businesses located in the Northeast Neighborhood and connection to our regional trail system, including the path to the M.

This situation is dangerous for cyclists and completely unacceptable.

Any intersection that requires cyclists to ride in mixed traffic fails to meet a standard of “appropriate for all ages and abilities” and fails to support Bozeman’s goal of improving multimodal accessibility.

Given the importance of this corridor, the City of Bozeman should not only fix this intersection, but should improve the safety and comfort of Peach Street for cyclists by removing the seldom-used parking on the north curb of Peach Street and installing proper buffered or separated bike lanes from 7th to Rouse.

Source

This intersection must be fixed to provide safe passage for cyclists on Peach Street to cross Rouse Avenue. Removing car storage for a half-dozen vehicles to improve the safety and comfort of a heavily used bicycle corridor at the same time just makes sense.

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Summer Reading List

Interested in some light summer reading? Consider picking up a copy of Bozeman’s Unified Development Code! Carve out some time, though—it’s longer than Kafka’s The Trial and The Castle combined. Critics are calling Bozeman’s little book of rules:

“A haunting chronicle of stifling and inhuman bureaucracy—Kafkaesque in the fullest sense.”

“Essential reading for affordability advocates.”

“Byzantine!”

Contained within is the secret to understanding why it’s so hard to build anything in Bozeman, why generic “Anywhere USA” buildings are easier to build than anything with character, and a big part of why housing in Bozeman is suddenly astonishingly expensive.

List of popular books by reading length(Reading list adapted from howlongtoread.com)

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Is Bozeman serious about affordability and sustainability—or not?

Bozeman will never achieve its climate or affordability goals without updating its zoning code to allow small lots, small floor plans, and more shared walls.

Bozeman’s development code bans small lots. A ban on small lots is, effectively, a ban on affordable, sustainable and desirable missing middle housing.

The current Bridger View subdivision being developed by HRDC is a case in point. Bridger View will provide 62 new units of housing on 8 acres of land, mostly in the form of single-family houses. Half of these units will be affordable “missing middle” houses. To accomplish this miracle of affordability and compactness the lots sizes within Bridger View (averaging 2500 SF) will be approximately half the size of a typical single-family lot in Bozeman (5000 SF+) and floor plans will be substantially smaller (800 – 1500 SF) than typical new construction. The result will be the most affordable and sustainable neighborhood built in Bozeman in living memory.

Artist's Rendering of the Bridger View Subdivision

Bridger View is only able to accomplish this by using a special provision in the City development code called a “Planned Unit Development” which allows relaxations in code requirements in exchange for better design. To become a reality, Bridger View requires waiver of nineteen sections of our zoning code, including at least four prohibiting small lots:

  1. Minimum lot size. The minimum lot size in Bozeman is 4000 SF. (Table 38.320.030.)
  2. Minimum lot width. All new lots must be 50’ wide (unless accessed by an alley, then 40’). (Table 38.320.030.B)
  3. Setbacks. Setbacks are the minimum distance between the lot line and the building. Per code, all lots must have a 15’ front setback, 5’ side setbacks, and a 20’ rear setback. The “required space for setbacks” formula is “Empty Space for Setbacks = 350 + 10L + 35W” where L is the length of the building envelope and W is its width. To build a 100 SF shack you would need an 800 SF lot. That works out to 100 SF of space for you and 700 SF for the planning department (Table 38.320.030.C). Of course, even without the 4000 SF lot size minimum, an 800 SF lot is impossible, since lots must be at least 50’ wide and have 20’ of empty space at their rear—1000 SF of empty space for the rear setback alone.
  4. Lot coverage. In addition to required setbacks, and a minimum lot size, city code also places a strict maximum on how much of the lot your house can cover. (Table 38.320.030.C) This is separate from the Floor Area Ratio (FAR) maximum that prescribes how many square feet of interior space you can have.

It’s not just the lot size minimums. The ban on small lots is also codified in our lot width minimums, required setbacks, lot coverage maximums, FAR maximums, block frontage requirements, street access requirements, off-street parking requirements, utility easements, and elsewhere. All of these different regulations do the exact same thing: they effectively prohibit small lots. This is redundant and counterproductive to the city’s affordability and sustainability goals.

We live in a city with an affordability crisis that bans small lots. Because land is expensive, a ban on small lots is effectively a ban on small houses (like many of those built in Bozeman in the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s). Consistent with national trends, our average house size in ballooning, even as fewer existing Bozemanites are able to afford housing.

What justifies Bozeman’s ban on small lots? Why do we ban small lots but not large lots? Why do we prescribe lot sizes at all?

We live in a city that pays lip service to “sustainability” and yet over half of residential areas are zoned in a way that prohibits multiunit development or duplex conversions. Low density development fuels sprawl increasing our reliance of cars. Single-family detached houses are far less energy efficient than housing units that share walls. Obviously, many people prefer to live in a detached house that does not share walls, but why explicitly prohibit the occasional duplex or triplex across vast swaths of town?

In her book “The Five-Ton Life” (a profile of American communities that produce less than half of Bozeman’s per-capita greenhouse gas emissions) Susan Subak demonstrates conclusively that greenwashing with LED lights and solar panels does far less to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than reducing building sizes and sharing walls. Subak writes that tools such as

“technical improvements in building design and renewable energy … can be helpful, but they give incomplete guidance on the essential importance of smaller floor plans and lot sizes in general. More broadly, city and community governments have a role to play in expanding opportunities for smaller living spaces by changing zoning laws to allow for more compact development, multi-unit construction and single-house to multi-unit conversions.”

It’s time for city leaders to take tangible action:

  1. Eliminate lot size minimums (acknowledging that other code provisions such as setbacks and utility easements will ensure that lots remain adequately large).
  2. Reduce required front setbacks to 10’ and required rear setbacks to 5’.
  3. Waive lot coverage maximums for floorplans of up to 1500 SF.
  4. Modify our zoning code (based on the recent examples from Oregon and Minneapolis) to allow duplexes or triplexes in every neighborhood.

Are we serious about affordability and sustainability—or not? What could we possibly lose by allowing smaller lots and smaller houses?

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Running for Bozeman City Commission!

After years of screed-ing here about Bozeman growth, development and politics, I’m excited to announce that I’m finally taking the plunge and stepping up to try to take a more active role in defining Bozeman’s growth trajectory. As of last week, I am officially a candidate for Bozeman City Commission in this November’s election.

There’s a long list of things I hope to accomplish as a member of Bozeman’s City Commission, but two, in particular, that are motivating me to run:

1. I’d like to see Bozeman become the premier biking city in the Rocky Mountain West. The car-based development pattern adopted by many American cities has led to communities millions are condemned to spend a significant portion of their waking hours stuck in traffic congestion. Almost every other day someone in Montana dies while driving. Transportation is now the #1 source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Biking, on the other hand, promotes a healthy and active population and creates a more pleasant, livable city. I want Bozeman to be a city where anyone wanting to ride their bike to work or an event feels safe doing so (which benefits drivers, as well, who encounter less traffic congestion).

2. Bozeman has an extremely scary affordable housing crisis unfolding. It takes roughly twice as much income ($103,000 per year, now) to afford a median-priced home now as it did just seven years ago. If this trend continues, it will hollow the Bozeman community out, from the outside in. I love Bozeman because of the passionate, down-to-earth community of people who live here. A crisis is emerging where young people who are passionate about things in life other than the pursuit of money are no longer able to afford to make a life here. On our current trajectory, Bozeman is on track to become another Boulder: those without a trust fund (or proceeds from selling a home in an expensive coastal city) need not apply.

More broadly, I want to see Bozeman take action on climate change (we have to act locally, especially given the abdication of responsibility at the national level), conserve open space (especially by avoiding sprawl), improve our water quality, become a more diverse and inclusive city, figure out a fairer tax system (our current system of 100% property taxes for all things is extremely regressive), develop better transit, and many more items besides.

If elected, I think I have both the policy-wonk chops and the hard-learned leadership skills necessary to be an effective advocate and decision maker to move Bozeman in this direction.

But to get there, first I have to get elected. I’m excited, nervous, but hopeful. It’s a wide-open field and I believe that I can win.

If you’re interested, check out my campaign website: https://www.eggeforbozeman.com

If you’re excited for me, consider making a campaign donation. Montana has some of the most progressive campaign finance laws in the United States, meaning my ability to get my message out this fall is going to be entirely dependent on attracting a large number of individual donations. Thanks!

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Snowmageddon 2019

Just a quick note: February just wrapped up as the snowiest February on record in Bozeman’s history—and it’s still snowing. I want this ALWAYS to be my life.

"Urban touring" through the marshes on the east side of Downtown

If I had a nickel for every car I’ve helped push out of a snow bank in the last three days, I’d be well on the way to buying myself a pint of beer at the Bacchus (which is open again). If I had a nickel for every neighbor helping, I’d be well on my way to buying a round.

I’m heartened and delighted by the community comradery.

For example: ten minutes ago, a two-wheel-drive truck somehow found itself embedded into the snow bank opposite my house. By the time I could pull on a jacket and slip my boots on, I was the fourth person to arrive. We each put a shoulder into the hood of the truck and pushed the truck right out. And, then, before the driver could quite roll her window down and say thank you, the helpers were dispersed—on with our days.

The snow this past week has imposed a lot of challenges and hardships on the community, and I just feel affirmed and a sense of belonging by the many ways I’ve seen the folks here respond. There’s a notable absence of abandoned vehicles, not for lack of getting stuck—but for the swift arrival of others to help push. I so appreciate the way that, even as our streets have become treacherous, they’ve also become more safe thanks to so many courteous drivers, yielding, waving, and driving carefully on our two-way streets that have become one-way streets.

And, delighted by how many big smiles I saw on Peets Hill yesterday, while in the midst of a ski tour from my back door…

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Making Bozeman a Better Place to Bike and Walk

An Open Letter to Bozeman City Commission

Re: Making Bozeman a Better Place to Bike and Walk

6 January 2019

Madame Mayor, Mr. Deputy Mayor, and Commissioners:

Bozeman’s Strategic Plan rightly calls for increased participation in active transportation. Active transportation makes our community healthier by improving physical health and air quality and improves the livability of our city by fostering a sense of place and safety and by reducing traffic congestion.

Having a goal is a great start, but if the city truly desires a future in which more Bozeman residents choose to walk or bike, this worthwhile goal must be met with tangible actions.

In this letter, I identify three simple steps that the City of Bozeman can take in 2019 to increase future participation in active transportation. These are:

  1. Enforce Existing Code to Keep Sidewalks Clear for Walking
  2. Fix Bozeman’s Bad Bike Laws
  3. Create a Bozeman Bicycle Plan

The way to increase participation in walking and biking is simple: if you make walking and biking safe and useful, more people will walk and bike.

Keeping Bozeman’s sidewalks clear is an obvious place to start. Clear, open sidewalks invite walking. Sidewalks caked with snow and ice or overgrown by bushes discourage all but the sure-footed and limber.

Bozeman ordinance Chapter 34 Article 6 requires that landowners clear new snow from their sidewalks within twenty-four hours of snowfall. Unfortunately, enforcement of this ordinance (like many of Bozeman’s ordinances) is complaint-driven. Most people who I’m acquainted with here in Bozeman would sooner shovel their neighbor’s walk than report a neighbor to code compliance. A system that relies on “turning each other in” makes code enforcement fodder for petty squabbles between neighbors, not a tool for achieving code compliance. We need, instead, a proactive, impartial, and fair system that helps neighbors comply with city code and ensures that our sidewalks are clear and walkable even when a house sits vacant or an occupant chooses not to shovel.

The snow removal ordinance allows the city to hire private contractors for snow removal and to recover not only the cost of clearing the sidewalks but also administrative costs (and if necessary to collect unpaid snow removal bills through property taxes). It’s a good ordinance; Bozeman’s would-be winter walkers deserve to see it enforced. I suggest that the City Manager make this a priority for the city’s next Public Works director. The city should also consider its own role in clearing sidewalks; e.g. the City of Syracuse recently committed itself to actively clearing 20 miles of priority sidewalks in the winter months.

Sidewalks matter in the summer months, as well. A sidewalk becomes difficult to pass if overgrown with trees and bushes. Here, too, city code (Chapter 16, Article 4) requires property owners to keep their sidewalks clear, but a survey of just a few blocks surrounding City Hall reveals that this ordinance also lacks consistent enforcement and compliance. I’d suggest unifying the nuisance vegetation ordinance with the snow removal ordinance to remove the legal penalties (currently, it’s a misdemeanor to have overgrown bushes) and empower the city to use the same contracting and cost recovery mechanisms as our snow removal ordinance.

Second, Bozeman’s existing bike laws make biking less safe and should be rewritten. Currently, Bozeman Municipal Code Chapter 36 Article 10 forbids any adult from riding a bike on a city sidewalk under any circumstances. This seems like a “solution in search of a problem.” Most cyclists naturally prefer the street, but less confident cyclists may prefer the safety and slower speed of the sidewalk. Even for confident cyclists, most cycling trips begin or end on a sidewalk.

To any who would suggest that there’s a legitimate safety justification for this law, I say: balderdash. More deaths occur annually by people pulling vending machines onto themselves than by cyclists colliding with pedestrians. Meanwhile, two bicyclists are killed every day in America by cars on the street. The difference between being struck by a bicycle at 10 mph versus a car at 25 mph is analogous to the difference between falling from counter-height versus falling from a fourth story window.

The only saving grace for this otherwise unconscionable ordinance is that few people choose compliance over their own safety—but therein lies the point: Bozeman cyclists shouldn’t have to choose between complying with city code or maximizing their safety. Dare I say it, our city’s code should promote the safety and welfare of bicyclists and pedestrians.

If in search of a neat legislative solution: just update the existing code to describe “e-bikes” (electronically assisted bicycles) instead of bicycles. This frees cyclists of this unnecessary and dangerous ordinance, and may create a good ordinance in the process.

Prior to 2009, the MSU-Bozeman campus held a similar ban, prohibiting students from riding their bikes on the main pedestrian mall. In 2009 ASMSU President Shane Colvin led an initiative to eliminate the ban. In the decade since, MSU has seen a significant increase in bicycle use with no apparent downside.

If the city wanted to go a step further and create laws favorable to cyclists, it could consider lobbying the State Legislature to allow cities to adopt “Idaho bike laws,” allowing cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs and red lights as stop signs (many cyclists do this already: codifying this practice into law would improve safety by normalizing expectations).

Finally, the city absolutely must begin to get its bike infrastructure right. The city’s current bicycle infrastructure plan follows its “Complete Streets” policy where cyclists and pedestrians get a slice of every upgraded arterial or collector street. This policy amounts to building bike lanes on the sides of busy roads. Unfortunately, if the goal is to increase participation in bicycling, bike lanes generally don’t work.

The formula for increasing biking in Bozeman is simple: build a useful, low-stress network of year-around bicycle facilities. Bozeman’s current approach could be characterized as building a disjointed collection of winter snow storage facilities that double in summer as high-stress cycling facilities. Low-stress facilities include: mixed-use paths, separated bike lanes, and bicycle boulevards. Our current policy of installing bicycle facilities on arterials and collectors is precisely upside down: low-stress facilities are created by separating bicyclists from traffic—not by funneling cyclists onto the very streets designed to carry maximum traffic.

Toward this end, Bozeman truly needs a bicycle plan. Bozeman’s spending on asphalt for bike lanes is disproportionate to our spending on planning good bike infrastructure. Our current return on investment is quite small. To get good value of its money, Bozeman needs a plan that will lead to a future in which the city provides a useful network of low-stress facilities—preferably starting in 2019.

A facility is “low-stress” if it passes the “12-year-old test.” If an average parent would feel comfortable using a bike facility with their 12-year-old son or daughter, it passes. If not, it fails. The Gallagator passes (when snow-free). The new shared used paths on South 11th Avenue pass. The new bike lanes on Rouse fail dramatically (in fact, these new bike lanes generally fail the “30-year-old intrepid rider” test).

Building this sort of thoughtful infrastructure requires a level of planning and detail that far exceeds what’s written into our Transportation Master Plan (TMP). For example, no existing city document describes how to create a “bicycle boulevard,” or shows intersection treatments with bicycle boxes (currently, most of our bike lanes simply disappear at busy intersections, where they’re needed most!). The network that’s shown in the TMP is a visionary future network, which is a helpful North Star, but lacks the required details about intersection treatments, design specifications, prioritization, and legislation necessary to fulfill its vision.

If Bozeman desired to obtain a “Bicycle Friendly Community” gold designation (which would be a good milestone goal toward the broader goal of fostering active transportation), having a bicycle plan is a necessary precondition. If it does nothing else in 2019, Bozeman should fund and hire professional assistance to create a bicycle plan.

Tackling these three “low hanging fruit” in 2019 would be a great step toward showing that the city is serious about promoting active transportation. At the end of the day, the types of transportation infrastructure we build and maintain determines our mobility choices. We’ve built great sidewalks: now, let’s maintain them. We’ve made some unhelpful laws, but these are easily amended. We have yet to build a network of useful, low-stress cycling facilities, but there’s no time like the present to start. Let’s make progress in 2019 by figuring out how to keep our sidewalks clear, ensuring that our laws support safe bicycling, and beginning to plan and build a useful network of cycling facilities that will appeal to users of all ages and abilities.

Thank you for your consideration,

Mark Egge
542 N Black Avenue
Bozeman, MT 59715

CC: Pedestrian and Traffic Safety Committee, Bozeman Area Bicycle Advisory Board, GVLT, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, WTI, Downtown Bozeman Partnership

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A Brief History of Bozeman

I’ve just delightedly found that Bozeman’s 2009 Community Plan (a.k.a. Growth Plan) contains a brief (10-page) and delightful history of Bozeman, from the first peoples here some 10,000 years ago on up through the present. If you’re curious who arrived first in now-Gallatin Valley—Lewis or Clark—or interested in which year Bozeman established its electric street car system, read on: BozemanGrowthPolicy2009-History

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Sure, Go Ahead. Get Lost in Montana

It started innocently enough. A quick five or seven-mile loop through Tom Miner basin just north of Yellowstone National Park; a perfect “taper” run leading to the race on tap next weekend.

With Mipso playing on the Sweet Pea stage till sundown, I ended up with a late start out of Bozeman the night before. Nearing the trailhead, both moose and black bear darted into the shadows, fleeing my headlights piercing the tunnel of dark through the otherwise untrafficed narrow dirt road.

I slept unusually late, not starting my slow jog out of the trailhead until well into the day. I carried a hand bottle, a few gels, a GPS watch. My GPS-equipped smartphone—my typical companion when running in new terrain—remained in the truck on account of my hasty pack job the night before leaving me armband-less.

The slate-colored sky spit a few drops of rain with barely enough substance to be considered drops. I hoped against a downpour, knowing what rain would mean to me in my thin t-shirt and short shorts at an elevation where, even in early August, the snow was only just recently melted out (my previous attempt to run this loop in June was thwarted by feet-thick snow).

Five or so miles in, the first concern registered: the trail didn’t seem to be going the correct way. I should be closing lolly-pop head loop back to the lolly-pop stem leading back to my truck. Enjoying the single-track (sloping gently downhill) and the views, figured I’d run a bit more and see where things led.

It’s funny how the mind will hold out hope, even in the face of mounting evidence against. The trail eventually turned the direction I expected. Even as ten miles ticked by, I help out hope of coming out where I’d started (in fairness, my glance at the map that morning had been cursory—perhaps I had simply misestimated the distance).

At mile fifteen, reality set in, in the form of an unrecognized trailhead parking lot, empty except for a single locked vehicle. The trailhead offered no information except for a faded, region-scale map.

I studied the map as best I could, gleaning the names of nearby creeks, and trying to make sense of what I’d run. With a race the next weekend, I didn’t dare run back the way I’d come (fifteen miles was already well-more than my taper intended—doubling my fifteen miles was right out).

By now, the sun shone warm and brightly. With a clear sense of direction, I set out to short-cut over the ridge to the north of me, straight back toward the trailhead where I started.

Easy running through open meadows turned to slow-moving bushwacking over thickets of downed trees. I opted to drop into a brushy, creek-filled drainage, where I knew a trail existed and where I hoped I could make better time.

The creekside trail, like many Montana trails, turned out to be more concept than physical reality—discernable mostly by the cut ends of logs where the Forest Service had “maintained” the trail some years prior. In the thick brush adjoining the noisy creek, I sang inane songs (oh Tom Miner / he had a basin / trail running / in that basin…) at the top of the lungs, wishing for my bear spray (at home with the armband that would otherwise have carried my smartphone/GPS).

The trail climbed up from the creek a bit. I found blueberries, which I enjoyed with relish, having consumed the last of my calories hours prior. Then raspberries. Wishing for strawberries, as if by divine providence, I found a few pea-sized strawberries, hiding in the brush. Rounding a corner (singing at the top of my lungs), I startled at a great crashing in the woods above me to see a black bear (the largest black bear I’ve ever seen) sprinting up the steep embankment above me and away.

As the afternoon light began to fade the trail climbed out of the ravine and into more open country. My eyes sought the surrounding ridgelines and promontories to make some sense of where I was—to no avail. By now, the sky was again slate-colored. A wind picked up, and suddenly cold pellets of rain were spitting from the sky, and then a proper downpour. I cowered, curled into a ball, under the tall mass of a dead Douglas Fir, trying to keep out of the freezing rain and biting wind.

Pinned as I was, I had time to take stock of my situation:

  • Current time: 6 pm
  • Estimated elevation: 8000 feet
  • Weather: thunderstorm, estimated duration unknown
  • Location: lost
  • Nearest known location: five hours away
  • Hours of daylight remaining: three
  • Surest option to escape the elements: none
  • Plan: wait and hope for storm to blow itself out; continue north, climb to ridgeline; hope for the best

Miraculously, the storm cleared. Late evening rays of sun pieced out below the clouds. Shivering vigorously, I willed my body to hobble faster even while keeping myself wrapped in semi-fetal bear-hug, hoping to drive my calorie-deprived and exhausted body hard enough to warm up as I threaded the gauntlet of sopping brush and vegetation.

Gaining the ridge (still shivering as I ran), what little hope I had sank—ridges and peaks and valleys spread away from me in all directions, none of which offered a hint of familiarity. Hope rose again as I discerned a trail, a fairly substantial trail, bearing the track of a dirtbike that had passed, possibly even that day.

Slowly, I formulated a new plan: follow the trail. Logically, it must lead to civilization, sooner or later.

And so I did. Running as best as my wasted legs and still-bear-hugging-myself-posture would allow, I ambled along the trail, which dropped off the ridge through a basin, then climbed back to the ridge where it clung stubbornly against my will.

About this time, I recall thinking to myself, “under different circumstances, I’d be astonished by the beauty, here.” Indeed, valleys and ridges stretched in every direction, soft-yellow evening light still cutting through the clouds, illuminating a landscape white and shining in its higher reaches with the iridescent sheen of accumulated storm sleet. And there, in the midst of it all, and a sole, nearly naked runner traversing across the skyline, shadow stretching clear to Pennsylvania.

And then, nailed to a gnarled tree clinging to a saddle on the ridgeline: a sign, and the rushing moment of realization of my exact location.

This whole time, my frame of reference put me somehow south of where I started. In fact, under the directionless, sunless sky, I had traveled north at a split in the trail that morning, not south, and had traveled some twenty miles north since. At the moment of realization, with some 45 minutes of daylight remaining, I found myself equidistant between Bozeman, some 25 or 30 miles to the north, and the trailhead to the south where my truck was parked.

Well, shit. At least I knew where I was. Given that it was nearly 9 pm on a Sunday, I figured my odds of finding a ride from Hyalite at 11 pm would be slim, meaning hoofing it through the night back to town, likely until 3 or 4 am, and then waking the next morning with my truck abandoned a two-hour drive away. I’d have to convince someone to spend half a day driving to help me retrieve my abandoned vehicle—what a pain! So, instead, I turned east, hoping to be able to reach the floor of Paradise Valley (some many miles distant) and the road running through, so as to be able to walk through the night on the roads I had driven the night before back to my truck.

No such luck, of course. The “trail” that was supposed to exist leading out along the creek was as much a fiction as the last “trail” I had traveled. Darkness settled.

I didn’t much mind the scratches of the brush, but I dreaded the sopping water on every leaf. As darkness settled, I tripped, slide, and stumbled with increasing frequency. Eventually, I found what little of a trail it was, again only discernable but cut log-ends, but far better (when I could stay on it) than climbing up, down, and over the beetle-kill deadfall.

For a while through the moonless night, I navigated by the dim light of the heart-rate monitor embedded in the back of my watch, turned out towards the woods like a flashlight. I eventually exited the thick woods into more meadow-like terrain. I found and followed a faint two-track, ending abruptly at a gate. Something large moved in the nearby woods. Cows, it turned out, after much yelling and throwing of things into a mute and blank darkness. Lights on a house shone in the far-off distance.

Then the watch chirped a warning—5% battery remaining. Without its feeble light, moving in the pitch-dark became mostly falling, causing me to fear injury. I used the last of the watch battery to gather dry grass under the branches of a tree, burrowed into the mounded grass as best I could and settled in to wait for sunrise.

I slept some, fitfully. I would wake, shiver violently for a spell, then drift back to sleep. (In the morning when I awoke, my pecs were oddly sore from their involvement in my shivering.)

I awoke in the predawn light. Further down the valley below me, something moved—headlights, passing on a road a mere quarter mile from where I had stopped, unable to make further progress.

A long story short, with some help from strangers, I found my way back to the unknown trailhead I had emerged at, the afternoon before, and from there the fifteen miles back to my truck. I stopped to nap in the sun along the way—once, then twice. I gathered thin thimblefuls of berries when I found them and drank greedily from the cold mountain streams. I lost the trail at one point, but this time spent an hour back-tracking to find it rather than forging another “shortcut” to god-knows-where.

At 3 pm, after 28 hours out, I rounded the last bend in the road to the trailhead, in sight of my vehicle—a site for sore eyes, if there I’ve known one. After gorging myself on what calories I had left in the truck, I started the engine and pointed toward home—chastened, relieved, exhaused—and now knowing what it means, truly, to be lost.

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Recreation Impacts of Logging Limestone West

Context: The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) is currently proposing to log state trust lands at the urban-wildland interface on the south side of Bozeman. The project will clearcut 500 – 1000 acres of trees, and result in approximately $200,000 of benefit to the trust beneficiary (the mostly the state “building fund”, in this case). The DNRC is offering two “Alternative” option for this project: Alternative A builds permanent roads and cuts a lot of trees, and Alternative B builds fewer miles of roads and logs fewer trees. (A third non-option is Alternative C, which defers action on this parcel for ten years, but requires that the DNRC be paid the market value of the timber.).

The proposed project area (with Strava heatmap data) is shown on the map below.

The DNRC has recently released its draft Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed project, and is accepting comments on the draft EIS until October 30, 2018. You can access the Draft EIS on the DNRC’s website here, and can submit comments of your own to the DNRC via email to LimestoneWest@mt.gov.

I don’t possess the wisdom or the knowledge to say whether this project is a good idea or a bad idea (I don’t like the idea of logging, but I can attest to the significant load of accumulated fuels in the proposed project area, which immediately abuts Bozeman’s water supply). However, as a frequent user of the nearby areas that have previously been logged by the DNRC, and as a data junkie, I do know that the draft EIS underestimates the extent and degree to which bikers, trail runners, hikers, and backcountry skiers will romp and play in the proposed project area if the roads are built and trees are removed. The comments that I have submitted to the DNRC to that effect are published, as an open letter, below.


Re: Limestone West Timber Sale Draft Environmental Impact Statement

Strava is a social network for fitness and outdoor recreation that records recreational activity using GPS. Like many local runners, bikers, and backcountry skiers, every time I recreate along the Gallatin Front, I record my activity using Strava. Strava, in turn, publishes this data in anonymized format on its Global Heatmap, available for free on its website. This data provides an empirical record of how many runners, bikers, hikers, and skiers recreate along the Gallatin Front.

Based on the empirical recreation activity data from Strava, the Draft EIS understates the quantity, intensity, and extent of future recreational use in three ways. First, when assessing Alternative B, the Draft EIS does not account for the existing informal trail from Triple Tree that would reach the roads built under Alternative B, providing access from the west as well as from the east. Second. The Draft EIS does not account for the recreational activities of backcountry skiers, who are significant (and growing) users of nearby Bear Canyon clearcut areas. Third, Strava data shows notable user activity on “reclaimed” roads from previous Gallatin Front harvests, suggesting that “reclaimed” roads should also be included the assessment of future recreation activities.

1. Alternative B access from Triple Tree

Describing Alternative B, the Draft EIS states, “additional access to other roads and trails in the project area from the Triple Tree Trail related to that road segment would not occur.” This is incorrect. The informal “upper hiking trail” extends south to within 100 feet of the Alternative B road and provides similar connectivity as the “0.7-mile segment of permanent restricted road proposed under Action Alternative A in the southwest 1⁄4 of section 4,” albeit via a steep trail. The Strava data shows that this informal trail is already heavily utilized.

The map above shows two access points between the “upper hiking trail” and the Alternative B roads. Strava data already shows user activity crossing the proposed terminus of the reclaimed spur road on the southern-most extent of the “upper hiking trail” (“Access Point #1”) and significant user activity passing within 125 yard of the permanent road further to the north (“Access Point #2”).

Users will quickly close these gaps. With the completion of GVLT’s “Main Street to the Mountains” trail as of September 21, 2018, there is now a continuous trail network that connects from Main Street through Triple Tree. Under Alternative B, the existing user trail provides direct connectivity to the newly constructed roads, allowing the new roads to be accessed from both the Mt. Ellis Lane trailhead, the Triple Tree trailhead, and Main Street Bozeman. Although the quality of the western connection would be lower under Alternative B, the existing trails would nevertheless provide connectivity for hikers, mountain bikers, and trail runners and result in significant use from the west as well as from the east. The EIS should reflect this reality.

2. Backcountry Skiers

The draft EIS does not include or address the recreational activities of backcountry skiers. This population of recreational users has exploded in recent years. For example, between the 2015/16 winter and the 2016/17 winter, data from the Snowsports Industries of America reports that participation in backcountry skiing grew 15%—a trend that’s consistent with recent years and expected to continue.

I skied about 20 days in the Little Ellis (Bear Canyon Timber Sale) area last winter. The majority of other users I met were backcountry skiers and snowboarders—a population of recreational users not mentioned, anticipated, or accounted for in the draft EIS.
Compared to cross-country skiers (mentioned in the Draft EIS), backcountry skiers go further, faster, and can travel any terrain. The EIS analysis relies on a buffer assumption of 0.31 miles based on a study from 1998, which doesn’t remotely describe the use patterns of backcountry skiers, who have no need for trails (though will follow trails when available).

The Strava heatmap data shown in the map above reveals that all of the clearcut areas from the 2012 – 2013 Bear Canyon harvest with a slope angle of more than ten degrees are crisscrossed with the user tracks of backcountry skiers.

The steep slopes proposed for logging under both Alternative A and Alternative B would be a significant draw for backcountry skiers, including those who currently recreate in the previously harvested areas. Without accounting for the activity of backcountry skiers, the EIS assessment of wildlife impacts from recreation is incomplete.

3. Reclaimed Roads

Finally, the draft EIS analysis of recreation activity excludes “reclaimed” roads its analysis. However, overlaying the Strava data onto the maps of the reclaimed roads from the previous harvests, shows that the “reclaimed” roads from the 2011 – 2013 Bear Canyon harvest (with the exception of a few short spurs near the bottom) are visible in the Strava data because recreational users are still using these “reclaimed” roads. This overlay is shown on the map below, where the permanent and reclaimed roads have been overlain with Strava user data. The purple and yellow lines next to and overlaying the cross-hatched “reclaimed” roads indicate user data on these “reclaimed” roads. (The user data is slightly offset to the north for visibility.)

In the winter time, especially for a backcountry skier, a reclaimed road is indistinguishable from a maintained road. Unless the cutbanks are going to be filled in, the 41% of roads under Alt A and the 26% of roads under Alt B to be “reclaimed” should be included and considered the same as the permanent roads with respect to winter recreation.

The final EIS estimate the extent of recreation and recreational impacts should be updated using empirical data of modern use patterns. I would encourage the DNRC to use the freely available data provided by Strava to better understand the current recreational use patterns in previously harvested areas to better understand likely future recreation in the Limestone West area under Alternative A and Alternative B.

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Bozeman’s Tourism Business Improvement District: An Unfair and Unwelcoming Tax

Suppose that, one night in a quiet corner of a dark room, Bozeman’s hotel owners make a pact to all raise their rates by an agreed-upon amount. Hotel revenues will go up, as guests would face the same price increase everywhere in town. Sounds clever, right? Well, almost, except for the fact that activities like this (“collusion,” “price fixing”) are blatantly illegal and would land the hoteliers in jail if the Department of Justice caught wind of their scheme.

But suppose that, instead, the hotel owners were to use the city to form a “business improvement district” with a special $2 / night tax. All area hotels would be required to collect $2 per occupied room, per night, squeezing all tourists and visitors equally. Proceeds from this “tax” could then be spent to their collective benefit. Although the consumer impact is identical, this scheme is sanctioned by state law.

This latter scenario is precisely how Bozeman’s Tourism Business Improvement District (TBID) came to be. In 2009, a thin 60.2% (state law requires a minimum of 60%) of recession-hit Bozeman hoteliers banded together and petitioned the city to create a “bed tax” across all hotels in town, and to appoint a board (whose membership is literally limited to Bozeman hotel owners or their family representatives) to spend the proceeds of the tax to increase hotel occupancy in Bozeman.

Fast-forward to 2018, and this business improvement district commands $1.2m of the city’s $106m budget. For those who are counting, that’s more than twice the city’s budget for affordable housing and public transit (Streamline), combined.

Whereas many communities with tourist taxes reinvest that money into the community (e.g. Big Sky’s resort tax, which helps fund its fire department and winter ice rink), Bozeman does not. What are we spending this money on? Why, ads like these:

"Only in Bozeman" ad in Powder Magazine

Ads like these are part of the $604,000 budgeted for “Consumer Advertising.” The table below from the FY19 Bozeman TBID Budget shows the breakdown of what Bozeman gets for its $1.2m:

BTID Budget

While state law places limits on what business improvement district proceeds can be used for, alternative permissible uses include:

  • Public Transit, or Facilities / Maintenance for Active Transportation (e.g. multiuse paths)
  • Public Safety (law enforcement and fire departments)
  • Water and sewer infrastructure
  • Parking

Given the many needs in the community, is there anyone who would really suggest that buying ads in Powder Magazine is really the highest and best use of city tax revenues?

A Deluge of Visitors

The TBID proceeds are being used to bring a deluge of visitors to town—the costs of which are borne by city property-tax payers.

Each year, some four million visitors come through Bozeman. The $1.2m BTID budget corresponds to 600,000 rented hotel rooms over the course of a year. If we assume 1.5 occupants per room, that works out to just shy of 2500 visitors and tourists staying in Bozeman on any given night. For a city of 43,500, that one visitor for every twenty residents, or about 5% of the people in town paying 0% for city services and infrastructure.

That is, without a local sales tax, Bozeman’s four-million annual visitors do not pay into the costs of the city services they benefit from. These costs fall on the permanent residents of Bozeman, who pay the property taxes (directly, or indirectly) that fund city services and infrastructure.

Now, there’s such a thing as hospitality. There’s also such as thing as fairness. Charging a tax on visitors to help pay for their share of city services may not be “hospitable,” say—but, sure enough, it’s fair. But what about targeting visitors’ pocketbooks and spending the proceeds to benefit the lodging industry, and leaving tax payers to pick up the bill?

Visitation v. Affordable Housing

I’m not anti-growth, but I do question the wisdom of Bozeman spending tax dollars to try to create more of it, when it seems we have plenty enough already. I say, let’s heed the advice of Fort Collins’ city leaders, who suggest a growing city ought to focus on the quality of living for those who have already arrived ahead of trying to attract yet-more-growth.

Affordable housing is, perhaps, the most significant challenge of Bozeman’s growth. By driving up property taxes (to provide city services to visitors), competing for scarce housing stock, and attracting additional new arrivals, the TBID only makes things worse.

Tourist lodging competes directly with resident housing. Demand for short-term rentals (e.g. AirBnB) competes with long-term rentals (i.e. housing for residents). Smaller Montana communities like Gardiner are experiencing this at crisis levels, where a combination of low tourism wages and the rapid conversion of local housing stock to short-term rentals is driving locals from their own town.

In the long-run, visitation drives growth. We know it anecdotally, from the stories we hear from our new friends and neighbors. Three-quarters of Bozeman’s population growth is attributable to new arrivals (mea cupla!). Who, of our four million annual visitors, could visit Bozeman and not be charmed by our city? Who could fail to appreciate its setting in the Gallatin Valley, or not feel a tug of desire to live at the foothills of the Bridgers?

The Skinny

It all boils down to this: we’re spending $1.2m million per year to try to bring more tourists to town. In the short term, this means higher property taxes for city residents, who pay for the infrastructure and services the visitors use. In the long run, this spending just drives growth. It’s a raw deal for tourists and city residents alike.

What Can be Done?

City commission approves the BTID budget. City commission could lean on the BTID Board (which sets the BTID budget) to redirect some funds to services that offset the impact of visitation (e.g. hiring additional police, building parking downtown). If this were to happen, the hotel interests might decide the Business Improvement District no longer served their interest, and choose not to pursue a renewal in 2024 when the current iteration of the district expires. This appeals to me—we get five years of value from the BTID, and then good riddance.

If the BTID were to lapse, I believe that Bozeman could establish a new “Special Improvement District” covering the same hotels, but with a new mandate to spend the proceeds to offset the costs of tourism currently borne by city tax payers. I’m frankly a bit shaky on the legal mechanism, here, but I believe this is possible.

For the time being, let City Commission know that you you’d like to see tourist tax dollars offset the community’s costs of hosting tourists, rather than being spent to draw more tourists. The BTID Board (with opportunity for public comment) meets occasionally on the fourth Tuesday of each month (they cancelled the June meeting scheduled for next week—nothing to talk about, apparently), and are scheduled to meet next on July 24th. To confirm that the board is actually meeting, check the city calendar a few days beforehand.

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