"Who can afford to live in the American west when locals can’t?" Kathleen McLaughlin, The Guardian (2021)
"Cultural extraction at the edge of the abyss," Kathleen McLaughlin, High Country News (2022)
"Pushed Out: Contested Development and Rural Gentrification in the US West," Ryanne Pilgeram, Univ. of Washington Press (2021)
"Billionaire Wilderness," Justin Farrell, Princeton Univ. Press (2020)
"The Winds of Montana," K. Ross Toole lecture (1985)
Megan Torgerson (narrating): Montana has long held a distinctive place within the mythos of America. Since entering the imagination of readers via Meriwether Lewis’ journal as a site filled with “scenes of visionary enchantment,” its trout-filled rivers, soaring Rocky Mountains and sweeping grasslands have called to its First Peoples and hopeful foreign settlers; prospectors and laborers; tycoons, plutocrats; ranch hands and powder-hounds. The Treasure State is a place rich in resources and space. And today, it’s becoming an ever-more attractive destination for those in search of a stronger sense of community, or an escape, in response to a dizzying and hyper-digital world.
In a state the size of the country of Germany with 1.1 million residents, there is certainly room for those desiring what Montana has to offer. But with soaring housing prices, widening income disparities and developments that are encroaching onto farmlands and wild places, Montanans have been consumed by the quandary of how they can ensure a future where existing residents can afford to remain, and how, in its increasing desirability, they can prevent Montana from becoming like the places newcomers are seeking to get away from.
Kathleen McLaughlin, a Butte-based writer who has documented the consequences of wealth inequality around the world, has reported on what the latest rush to Montana towns means for the state’s working-class residents and open spaces.
Kathleen McLaughlin: The point is that people who want to live here should be able to make a living here. And for a long time, Montana's kind of allure, I think, for working class people was that, you know, we don't have all of the amenities of major metropolitan areas – we don't have major sports teams, we don't have like the huge cultural amenities – but it was cheap to live here. And it was nice to be able to do things outside. And now, it's no longer cheap to live here, and it's more difficult to do things outside because it's more crowded, more land is locked off by private landowners.
Torgerson (narrating): I’m Megan Torgerson and this is Reframing Rural. Today, a conversation with Kathleen McLaughlin, an award-winning journalist who’s worked in Butte, Great Falls and Helena, Montana along with Beijing and Chinghai, China. She’s spent her professional life covering labor issues and class. I discovered Kathleen’s work after reading her 2021 Guardian article, “Who can afford to live in the American west when locals can’t?” This piece included interviews with Bozeman residents experiencing the cruel reality of an affordability crisis that is pricing some residents out of their homes and onto the street, and pushing others out of their community altogether. For the article Kathleen also spoke with Sean Hawksford, a local business owner with a $600,000 budget to purchase a first home for his young family. After continuously losing out to all-cash offers, Sean resorted to holding up cardboard signs on Bozeman’s Main Street reading “PLEASE SELL ME A HOME,” “HIGH HOME PRICES HURT REAL PEOPLE” and “SELL TO A LOCAL.”
As Kathleen highlighted in this piece, new stories have, as she wrote “focused on wealthy paradise seekers, while ignoring who and what is being lost, trampled over and forgotten.”
I spoke to Kathleen about the state of local journalism and how she re-centers longtime residents, by shining light on how unequal growth harms the social fabric of mountain towns like Bozeman. Kathleen and I also dove into her exposé for High Country News, “Cultural extraction at the edge of the abyss.” This story covers how a global art project used the image of the Berkley Pit, an abandoned open pit copper mine filled with toxic waste in her hometown of Butte, and then skipped the town when the project was ready for its debut. While the face of the art piece was the city’s mile-long, 1,600-foot-deep scar, the artists never engaged with the community that lives next to it. This exhibit is a modern example among many of how both resources and culture have been extracted out of a state where land and space have become its hottest commodity.
This episode fits into the larger themes of Reframing Rural’s third season by looking at how land-use trends are affecting rural-adjacent communities like Bozeman and Missoula, and others across the West. In it we’ll cover the importance of having language to discuss class, along with the harmful impacts of positioning Montana in romantic, pastoral terms that fetishize manual labor.
As you’ll hear reference to, my interview with Kathleen precedes a forthcoming episode including Ryanne Pilgeram the author of “Pushed Out: Contested Development and Rural Gentrification in the US West.” Ryanne’s book is a case study for how the forces of capitalism transformed the North Idaho town of Dover from an economy that extracts resources, to one that extracts services and amenities. As she wrote, “the grandchildren of folks who once earned a living clearing timber are now clearing tables…[but] in 2022 the tipped wage in Idaho is $3.25 an hour.”
In today’s conversation with Kathleen McLaughlin, who interviewed Ryanne for her Guardian piece, we also mention the book “Billionaire Wilderness: the Ultra-Wealthy and the Remaking of the American West” by Wyoming-born Yale Professor, Justin Farrell. If you want to learn more on the topic of class inequality in the West and the existential questions that come with it, I recommend checking out these books along with Kathleen’s work on the subject. Now without further ado, my conversation with Kathleen McLaughlin.
Torgerson: So, an undercurrent throughout your career as a political reporter, foreign correspondent in China and now author has been class and labor issues, a lifelong undertaking, you've said that's rooted in your close knit hometown, Butte, America. So, could you tell me a little bit about your childhood in Butte and the class dynamics that played there and how that community shaped you?
McLaughlin: Sure. So when I was growing up most of the mines in Butte shut down. So I was a kid at a very particular juncture in the history of Butte, which had been, you know, kind of the industrial heart of Montana for a hundred years. And then suddenly the industry shriveled up and died. So when that happened, this place that had been the site for working class people defined decent jobs for generations changed into something else. And so my childhood and my teenage years were really shaped by watching what happens when a major corporation, which at the time was Anaconda company, and later Arco, which bought the Anaconda Company, decide that the place that they created and sustained is no longer worth the effort. And so I think that just watching those dynamics play out in real people's lives. I mean, when I was in elementary school, I remember a lot of friends moving away because their parents had to leave town to find a job. By the time I was in high school, that same thing was going on, and that really shaped the way that I viewed I would say, corporations, and wealth and power. And just watching the amount of power that one company had over my community and the people who lived here gave me a pretty deep understanding of those kinds of power dynamics.
Torgerson: Was there a grieving that the community went through when the mine closed? And how did your family stay? Like what types of jobs did your parents take after the mine closed? Your dad worked in the mine, right.
McLaughlin: My dad worked in mining, but he left, he didn't stay, so he moved to other places and continued mining elsewhere. Um, my mom stayed, she had never worked in mining. You know, it's very interesting. There was a grieving, and I don't know that we have recognized it as such, but looking back on it, I think the most visible symbol of that grieving was when this city leaders put this massive statue of the Virgin Mary on top of the mountain that looks down over town. You know, I've read a lot about this going back and at the time the unemployment rate in Butte was something like 15%, you know, wow. Had, which is massive, right? I mean, thousands of people had left, people had to go elsewhere to find good work. And it was that, you know, looking back on that, I think that we, we saw it as, oh, this is a religious effort because the town is really Catholic.
But it was almost more of a community healing project than anything. I mean, it was, it was Catholic, obviously it's a symbol of Catholicism, the Virgin Mary. But I think that it was an endeavor to bring the people of Butte together and kind of bond in these hard times that were happening around us. And I think it did do that. I mean, I'm not a practicing Catholic and my parents weren't at the time, but it was, it was very inspiring, I would say, to see people pull together and make that thing happen. It was crazy what they did. And they managed to pull it off. And that 90 foot statue is still standing on top of the continental divide.
Torgerson: Wow. I never knew the story behind that. That's really neat. To, to learn when, when it came about. And yeah, I was reading that like the population of Butte was once 100,000 people.
McLaughlin: That's what they say. I mean, and then when I was in high school, so Denny Washington, who's a Missoula billionaire, and who was for a long time the wealthiest man in Montana, bought the mining operations in the Continental Pit which is the currently operating mine in Butte. The actual mining in Butte, you know, there were dozen of different mines. The actual mining was only shut down for a very short period, but what you have left today is, is quite different. Back in the heyday when there were a hundred thousand people living here, you had 10,000 miners working below ground. Today it's somewhere around 350 people who work at the mine. So the scale of things has just shifted so dramatically that it's not the same world.
Torgerson: Yeah. But then again, mining is still so much a part of the identity of Butte. So do you think that people even who aren't working in mining today have a real pride for that kind of working class background that maybe their grandfathers worked in?
McLaughlin: Oh, for sure. I mean, it's kind of funny, there's a lot of different dynamics in it there, you know, there was some snobbery among miners themselves or what kinds of mining you did. So underground minors, I think, a little more, thought of themselves as a little above people who worked in the open pit mine. So there are all these different kinds of mining, but there is definitely a pride in that work that still remains in Butte. And people like to talk about their family history with it for sure, and they still identify this as a mining town. And if you come here, I mean, there's a massive open pit, which I think most people think is the Berkeley pit, and it's not. It's the continental pit, which is run by, Montana Resources, which is the Missoula billionaire Denny Washington. So the biggest visible scar for mining has actually happened since the 1990s. And I think most people think that mining has totally shut down here. But the thing you really see when you come to Butte is actually modern and new.
Torgerson: So in The Guardian, you wrote about the first wave of gentrification that you experienced in the eighties when land became more important than people or communities, and the community transitioned away from being more predominantly mining into more service based. So I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit more of what it was like to live through that transition.
McLaughlin: Yeah, I wouldn't say that happened so much in Butte. It was more of a Montana thing, and it was the early 1990s when that happened. So, you know, if you look back at the history of the state, a lot of Western Montana and even Eastern going so far as Great Falls and other places, were marshaled around the Butte mines. You know, you had the processing plants, you had Missoula providing the lumber, you had smaller communities providing different resources that all went into this massive mining operation in Butte. When the mining operations shut down, it affected everything. And that includes railroad services as far away as Glendive. So Butte continued mining through the early nineties. Places like Missoula, which had been linked to Butte through historic mining, went in a different direction. And I would say that they chose to value land over people in a lot of ways.
There were a lot of promises in that period that the service economy would replace and provide just as good of a living as the extractive resources economy. And there wasn't a lot of details on how exactly that was going to happen. I would say there was a lot of resentment. There was a lot of class based insults that were thrown around at Butte and at mining and things like that. And in the end, I think that way of looking at Montana won out and we're seeing now, what, 30 years later, we're seeing the results of that. That service industry jobs don't actually provide a better income. It's usually minimum wage with no benefits, no health insurance, no paid time off. I mean, you have people who are really struggling to make ends meet at the moment. We're also seeing service industry jobs, and I'm thinking of people who work in restaurants and other places, where you have close contact with other people.
With the pandemic, we're seeing that those jobs prove to be just as dangerous perhaps as the old extractive resources jobs. I mean, there was a study that came out last year that nationwide in the US the most dangerous job during the pandemic was line cook. So you've replaced an economy where the jobs were dangerous, they were dirty, they weren't the most fun thing in the world, but people eventually after unionizing got paid well and had good benefits and could raise a family. You replaced those with jobs that don't pay well, don't provide good benefits, and are also dangerous and dirty.
Torgerson: But it's positioned as like tourism and the service industry that supplies the work in order to make tourism in Montana feasible, is kind of positioned as like, better for the environment.
McLaughlin: Because it's prettier. And I honestly think that is the reason. So you have people who already have money, have a good job, don't have to worry about actually making a living, and they like it because it's prettier. I mean, you can look at the Berkeley pit and say it's also less toxic. There's definitely an argument to be made for that. But you have to look at the impact on communities of tourism and the influx of wealth we're seeing.
So for example, the Yellowstone Club has been under a lot of scrutiny for potential pollution in a watershed near where that exists. And that's the kind of the oldest, currently existing private enclave for the super-rich, which is near Big Sky and Bozeman. And they have their own environmental problems. So it might look prettier, but I would say that the economy that we have created in the last 30 years is fraught with just as many problems as the extractive economy. And the real problem is, it's very difficult to get people in positions of power to acknowledge that.
Torgerson: And I think if you were to take an aerial view of the Berkeley pit and an aerial view of multimillion dollar homes and all the roads that have to be cut through the mountains to get to those homes, you would also see kind of through the veneer that totally, it's not as beautiful as it's being positioned.
McLaughlin: That would actually be a great photo project. Someone should do that. A friend of mine sent me a picture a few weeks ago of a new luxury home that's being built outside of Whitefish, right on top of a mountain in prime grizzly bear habitat. So they're gonna put fences around it and fence off what is a pathway for grizzly. So yeah, I'm not sure that's better than mining.
Torgerson: Totally. It has a different type of impact on the wildlife. So you also wrote in one of your Substack blog articles that Butte’s cemeteries are the best place to see how society was segmented by wealth and power evidenced by like the mausoleums and marble tombs beside wooden crosses for miners, and then the absence of the Copper Kings graves who you know, extracted wealth from the area and then were buried in New York.
McLaughlin: Right it's so funny to me. They're all buried in New York. Because they all had, you know, they all had luxury apartments in New York, which is where they really lived, and they just pulled the wealth out of this town and then wanted nothing to do with it when they were done. So it's very interesting. You can really see there's a lot of cemeteries here. There's at least half a dozen big ones and you can really see who had wealth and who didn't and who had power and who didn't. And I think it's just so telling, so revealing that the people who had the most power did not want to be buried here alongside the people who gave them that wealth and power by working for them.
Torgerson: Yeah. I think that K. Ross Toole spoke to this. I took your advice and revisited some of his lectures.
McLaughlin: He's great, isn't it?
Torgerson: Yeah. Oh my God, I've like, heard bits and pieces Yeah. But, really want to dive in. Yeah, but he said “nothing so characterized Montana's development as promise never realized the vast wealth of which only a tiny portion stayed at home, that we have been battered and beaten and lied to and lied about.” Yeah, I think that the fact that the copper kings weren't buried in Montana and then took our wealth to places like New York really speaks to that.
McLaughlin: Yeah. That's it right there. I mean, this is what's interesting to me about what's happening right now, is that Montana has always been a place for the picking. I mean, you have, you know, colonizers pick this place from the original owners of the land, Native Americans. And then you had wealthy people extracting natural resources like minerals and timber. And now you have this really bizarre situation where it's a new kind of extraction, but it's cultural extraction. You have people buying properties that no one who works here for a living could afford to ever own or live in. You have people coming here on vacation and spending money to buy an experience of Montana, and you have very little giving back to the communities that are being extracted from. So in a lot of ways, I really do see what's happening here right now as a very weird continuation of what we've always been.
Torgerson: Like you've written in High Country News, “wealth driven community eroding development.”
McLaughlin: Right? Yeah. So I mean, is it that much different that someone buys a multimillion dollar home at the Yellowstone Club and spends several weeks a year there, or a couple of weeks a year there and helps drive up the prices for working class Montanans. Is that that different than the Copper King, William Clark owning mansions all around the world that were built with wealth from Butte Copper? I'm not sure. I mean, it's just a different pattern of extraction. The other thing about this is that up until I think some of us started writing about it in, in this way, that it is gentrification and it is extraction, there was this tendency among elected officials from both parties, I'm not being partisan at all, this is Democrats and Republicans who would take the easy way out of this and lean into the outsider versus real Montana trope.
I mean, unless you are a Native American, you're not a real Montana, you know, this is not, and also that doesn't really. hat doesn't really matter. The point is that people who want to live here should be able to make a living here and for a long time, Montana's kind of allure, I think, for working class people was that, you know, we don't have all of the amenities of major metropolitan areas. We don't have major sports teams. We don't have like the huge cultural amenities, but it was cheap to live here, and it was nice to be able to do things outside. And now it's no longer cheap to live here. And it's more difficult to do things outside because it's more crowded, more land is locked off by private landowners. And so I think that up until very recently, this total blindness by politicians to even acknowledge there was a problem. And in a lot of instances, they actually made it worse by leaning into that trope of, oh, you can't vote for that guy. He's from California. They've actually made the problem worse by targeting something that isn't really the issue. The issue is decent wages and affordability.
Torgerson: Yeah. Ryanne Pilgeram in her book talks about the tendency to blame single actors, so to blame the developer who's coming in and building a big development instead of kind of these systemic national issues of, like we were saying, class inequality, housing affordability. Do you think that that's becoming more common knowledge, that there's something underlying the housing crisis?
McLaughlin: Oh, for sure. I think people are very aware. And I honestly think that people have always kind of been aware of the problem. It's our leaders that have failed us in naming the wrong problem, because I mean, it's much easier if you are a politician of either party to blame a boogeyman for the problem and the boogeyman being wealthy out of staters, and then you still go to the Yellowstone Club for your fundraiser for your campaign which is what people from both parties have done. So yeah, I think that most people do know what the problem is. The issue is how do you get elected officials to listen and do something about it? And thus far they haven't.
Torgerson: Do you think that this has to do with a class blindness too? Potentially these politicians aren't from diverse class backgrounds, or maybe there's less journalists who are reporting on these issues than their once were.
McLaughlin: It could be a combo, I would say up until very recently, the people who were elected to office here did come from working class backgrounds. By recently, I mean, up until two years ago. You know, the governor came from a solid working class background and most of the other statewide elected officials did as well. I think that's definitely part of what's making things worse at the moment that we have elected officials who are super wealthy, and don't necessarily care about working class people, or at least don't see it as a priority.
And yeah, the lack of local news is really a huge problem. I mean, let's look at Great Falls, for example. So I worked at the Great Falls Tribune in the mid-1990s, right when I was first out of journalism school. And at that time, the paper had around 40 journalists in the newsroom. It was recently reported that because of budget cuts from CIGNET, which owns the paper, the Great Falls Tribune, is down to two journalists.
Torgerson: Oh my God.
McLaughlin: So how do you inform a community? And Great Falls is not a little town. I mean, it's what, 65, 70,000 people? It's a big city for Montana, and I don't know how you inform a community. And the Tribune was the paper of record for not only Great Falls, but outlying smaller communities, the reservations that are in the area, you know, they had a huge coverage area and did really important work, and they barely exist now.
I was in Great Falls a few months ago, and I was looking at the local paper, and there were two local news stories in the entire print newspaper. Everything else was wire copy. And this isn't to fault the journalists who are working. They work their asses off, but corporations have devastated local newspapers, and it's had a massive impact on what people know about their communities. And maybe even more importantly, people don't feel seen anymore, and so it has really played into a lot of resentment that was already bubbling up in Montana, if that makes sense.
Torgerson: Yeah. And that's why I think your work is so important as someone who can speak to the experience of living in Butte and who writes about class. It's so important to have those stories out there.
So you, after leaving Butte, went on to study journalism at the University of Montana. You also worked as a State House reporter in Helena for seven years, and then you moved to Beijing and Shanghai, China. Quite a journey.
McLaughlin: I'm sure that makes a lot of sense, it's like the natural progression, Helena to Beijing, right?
I'd always wanted to travel overseas, and I didn't come from the kind of financial background that I could just take off and travel for a year. And journalism is one of those incredible careers where you actually can learn about places and work at the same time. And so I took a job as a copy editor in Beijing and did that for a year and that was in 1999. And at that time, it was very clear, China was still very much a developing country. It was still a pretty poor country in a lot of ways, but it was very clear that it was on the cusp of a massive change. And so after the year was up and my contract was up, I came back to the US for a couple years, but I really wanted to go back to China.
McLaughlin: So I found a job with a magazine and lived in Shanghai for – I think I was in Shanghai for seven years, and then moved back to Beijing and was there for another eight years. So it was 15 years in total. And really just, I mean, the reason I stayed there for so long is I happened to be there at the exact moment when China was blowing up, and I mean that in a positive way. So, you know, it was in the process of becoming the second largest economy in the world. And everything was dynamic. The stories were incredible, the people were incredible. It was just a great place to be, and especially to be working as a journalist. And then I eventually left because it started going in the other direction, a lot more restrictive, a lot more difficult to do my work. And it was also time to come home. You know, there's something about living in a country that isn't yours, that eventually you're like, okay, this isn't my country. I should probably go home. So moved back to the US and then after a few years elsewhere, landed back in Montana, first Missoula, and then Butte.
Torgerson: Wow That's just such a fascinating journey. I thought that my, travels to Europe for a year, or living in Asheville and then coming back to the West Coast was a lot of traveling.
McLaughlin: I think that's all interesting, you know, I mean, I think that just getting out and experiencing the world in a different way is always interesting and valuable.
Torgerson: Yeah. And well, I have a couple questions just about your experience there, but I guess kind of tying back into the state of journalism and there's been a recognized lack of people with diverse backgrounds in national media today, as you know, with a consolidation of, of media companies and newspapers by corporations. So I'm wondering just how your experience, when you entered into a larger pool of reporters in leaving Montana, how you recognized like that there were people who were kind of blind to social class. What was that experience like?
McLaughlin: I mean, I loved my colleagues in Beijing, so I'm not gonna say anything bad about them, but there was definitely a blindness to class for sure, because most of them were Ivy educated, private school educated, kind of shaped to become foreign correspondence through different means. I was unusual. I oftentimes, and this is a weird thing to say, but I sort of class passed, if that makes sense. I didn't talk about my background so much. It was sort of assumed. I think that because I was there, I was in the club. I had a couple of friends who I worked with very closely who came from similar backgrounds to mine. And we would talk about it like, oh my God, this is such a weird little world. But this is, you know, the way that journalism is right now, you almost have to be well off or come from a well off family to build a career because you have to be able to work for almost nothing for a long time.
So you need a family safety net or a financial safety net of some kind. So if you grow up poor or working class, I have no idea how you would build a career in journalism because it's based on, first of all, a lot of it is based on who you know, that's just the way it is. And then secondly a lot of it builds from unpaid internships in really expensive cities. And so most people cannot afford to do those. I certainly couldn't have afforded to do those. So I think I may have been part of the last generation where you could sneak in from a different class background.
When I was working in local journalism in Montana, the majority of the journalists had grown up here and had family connections here, and were very intimately connected to the communities. The reason they were working as journalists is because they wanted to educate their communities and their families about what was going on. That's certainly why I did it, but I think you need a mix of people who have deep connections to a place to be able to care about it and explain it.
Torgerson: Yeah. I was interviewed by a magazine where the audience is largely like people who are interested in buying kind of more expensive homes in Montana.
McLaughlin: Oh lord. No.
Torgerson: Yeah. The editor is like, oh, you're like a real Montana.
McLaughlin: What does that even mean? Like, what does that even mean?
Torgerson: I don't know. I think she was speaking to the fact that I grew up on a farm.
McLaughlin: But again, America pretends that we are a meritocracy, and we don't have class. People have no language to talk about class. And so they say things like real Montana when what they actually mean is, oh, you're working class Montana, or I don't know anyone like you, but they use these weird terms like real Montanan. It's, it's very interesting.
Torgerson: Like you're from California or you're from Texas, which means you have money, but it doesn't necessarily mean that you are from those areas.
McLaughlin: Exactly. So because we don't have any language to talk about class, we use these weird terms that are meaningless. So, I mean, one of the things that I would love to see is people just gain a language to talk about class in a way that's meaningful. I was just in the UK visiting some friends, and they were having a conversation one night about their own social classes, and they were so honest and upfront about it. I was like, you would never see Americans do that. I mean, and one of the people was acknowledging that they came from a wealthier background and they were kind of joking about it. But there's so much defensiveness in the US around even talking about it, that when you bring it up with people that do come from higher income backgrounds, they will really go to extreme lengths to downplay that as having had any impact on their success or their standing in life.
Torgerson: I like in in the billionaire wilderness book too, how he talks about using the rural westerner to achieve some sort of personal transformation. And so they're playing into like these rural – the idyllic version of the rural west. And could you just talk about the harmful impacts of mythologizing our Western history?
McLaughlin: Well, I mean, first and foremost, it erases anyone who's not a white man, you know, I mean, the mythology of the west is always a white guy with a cowboy hat on a horse, right? And sure, those do exist. I mean, there's a lot of them, but they're not the majority of the population. And when you only strive to be that version or to show that version, you're erasing everyone else. And I think that's really harmful, just in terms of the way that people think about community, the way that people respond to community. So if you're never seeing portrayals of women or people who aren't cisgendered, or, you know, if you're only seeing one type of person you can come to believe that that's the only people who are here.
I've seen a lot of discussion like about Montana being this place where only white people live. The fact is we have one of the highest populations of Indigenous people of any state in the US and that never enters into the conversation. It's just painted as this, you know, uber white state with no diversity. And it simply isn't true. So I think that that's a big part of the harm. And when minorities and women and other people are diminished, it's easier for the same people to retain power and use it to continue erasing them, I think.
Torgerson: I guess I kind of wanna to get into talking about “Extraction Art on the Edge of the Abyss.” So how did you first find out about that exhibit?
McLaughlin: That's a good question. I have to tell you, I don't even remember. I saw reference to it somewhere online, and I was like, oh, damn, this looks really cool. So I started googling around thinking, when is this gonna show in Butte? And I find the schedule and it's scheduled for Missoula, Bozeman, Billings, Kalispell Helena, basically everywhere but Butte, which I started thinking. I had at the time been doing a lot of book research in Flint, Michigan, and so getting pretty familiar with Flint. And I kept thinking, okay, what if they did an entire global art exhibit based around environmental degradation in Flint and the Flint water crisis, but they never showed it in Flint. Would that not be super offensive? As you know, we've been talking about extraction, it actually sort of made sense to me that this is exactly what someone would do with Butte. You come here, extract art from the place, but never involve the actual community that you're talking about.
Torgerson: Yeah, it sounds like a case study that I we would talk about in grad school – I wasn't an arts leadership program – like this is what you don’t do.
McLaughlin: That’s great. So I think, and this is my opinion, but I think it's true, and I've talked to some people about this. I think part of the reason that it happened, the way that it happened is that the writer who actually conceived of this idea and started the project was a guy from Butte who was absolutely incredible. And he never would've laid it play out that way, but he died a few years ago. And so the project was then led by people who don't live in Montana, and people who I think have a very classist view of Butte. And I could tell that from my reading, from looking at the images from the way the art was presented, and also from interviewing them, it was just, you know, it felt like straight up classism. And that's always been a thing with Butte as, you know, as long as I've been alive, it felt very familiar to me. But it was very interesting to talk them through why this was flawed and why this was wrong. And then they came to the realization that, oh my God, actually this was shitty.
Torgerson: But it was after the fact.
McLaughlin: Oh yeah. They'd never, it had not crossed their minds. I was told in one of the interviews that Butte just isn't the kind of place that want something like this.
Torgerson: Did they ask people?
McLaughlin: Well, they had told me they tried to set something up here, and it just didn't work out. Now, I talked to artists who live in Butte who said they were never contacted. I will just say that if you're doing a global art project inspired by one community, you should work pretty damned hard to make sure it involves that community. Otherwise you're just leering and extracting in the same way that natural resource extraction happened.
Torgerson: So what has your experience been like moving back to Montana and how is Montana similar or different than your childhood?
McLaughlin: Oh, it's so much different. It's so different now, I will say Butte never changes, which is both good and bad. There's pluses and minuses to that. Butte and Anaconda to a certain extent, and probably Great Falls feel to me like the places that in the western half of the state feel like the places that have changed the least. Bozeman is unrecognizable to me. It could be any city, any sort of midsize city in the Midwest. It just has a different character to it. You know, Bozeman used to be a cow town. It has this very generic vibe to it now. Um, Missoula to me is, I don't wanna say too many mean things about Missoula. Missoula's super gentrified. I mean, that's really all I can say about that. But it was pretty clear a long time ago that Missoula was on that path. Missoula when I was in college was still edgy and it doesn't have an edge anymore from what I can tell.
Torgerson: Yeah, I feel like when I was in Missoula, it was at the tail end of that. And I'm glad that I kind of got a bit of that experience. And it's funny because my best friend grew up in Seattle and I remember like visiting Seattle in 2009 and her telling me about, you know, this condo just went up and this looks completely different. And that felt like a world away. Like I thought that that could never happen to Missoula or the places in Montana that I loved. And I've kind of had an awakening the last few years, like, oh yeah, that can happen.
McLaughlin: It's funny, I was talking with a friend in Butte the other day and she asked me if I thought that Butte would ever become like that, you know, super expensive housing. And we both agreed that no, because the Berkeley Pit is always going to keep the super wealthy people away. Because of what's happened in Bozeman and also Missoula housing prices in Butte have gone up 50% in one year. So we're, it's not like we're not experiencing the runoff from it. Yeah. But we're not experiencing the same kind of complete influx. I mean, just to be clear, I don't think an influx of people is a bad thing, and I don't think that new people moving to communities is a bad thing. The problem is most of the people who are moving in are part of a pattern of inequality and income disparity. So they're not moving there to take jobs working in a restaurant or working in a hospital. Usually you have people coming in with a lot of wealth who are paying a lot more for housing and that's dividing things more.
Torgerson: Yeah. Just like the example of Sean Hawksford who you interviewed.
McLaughlin: Oh, Sean, he's so great.
Torgerson: Yeah, his story went viral for holding up a sign, you know, “please sell me a house,” but he had $600,000 budgeted to buy a house.
McLaughlin: Which is a ton of money for Montana. Like that is more money than anyone I know in my childhood ever spent on a house that's like rich people housing.
So a friend of mine in Bozeman sent that picture to me. He took it of Sean out on the street with a sign that said, please sell me a house. And then I think it maybe detailed who he was. And I just posted it on Twitter and it went viral. He had already seen, I wanna say he'd already seen like 40 houses and made a dozen offers on houses. And he was cut off every time by all cash buyers. And someone saw his story and they contacted him and said, you need to call this guy, he's got a house that would be perfect for you.
And he kind of blew it off at first and was like, I'm so tired of, you know, looking. He finally called the guy and the guy gave him a really fair price for a really nice house because he wanted to sell it to someone in the community. So, unfortunately most people can't go stand on the street with a sign like that. And I don't think we should have to, I mean, we should have political leaders who have an agenda for fixing this problem. And it would require things that would cut them off from big money funders, like increasing taxes or putting a tax on second homeowners. Yeah. And restricting short term rentals like Airbnbs. But they would have to really like, take a position that would make them unpopular with rich people. And I don't see that happening.
Torgerson: I think in that same article you reported that the state legislature, chose not to make any mandates for affordable housing.
McLaughlin: Well they even went beyond that. Bozeman and Whitefish had enacted local ordinances that would have required developments to include a certain percentage of affordable housing. And these were local city decisions. This was not a state decision. And the legislature came in with a bill banning cities from making those kinds of decisions. So they pulled the rug out from Bozeman and Whitefish in particular were already doing these things or planning to do them and the legislature said, Nope, you can't do that. So they actually made it worse.
Torgerson: Oh no.
McLaughlin: Yeah. Well the developer's lobby is very powerful in Montana, obviously in the real estate lobby and the working people's lobby, not so much.
Torgerson: Not so much. Cuz they're working really hard.
McLaughlin: They're too busy to go to the legislature.
Torgerson: So what does that look like on the flip side? Like, could you paint a picture for me of what the gentrification of Bozeman looks like one of the people that you interviewed who works at IHOP is now living in an RV.
McLaughlin: Yeah and he makes $50,000 a year. And he lives in a camp trailer out on the street. And it isn't that he could afford to pay rent. What he can't afford is first and last month and deposit and all the hookup fees. So it's a big chunk of change to get into a place. And then the rental prices, I mean, you talk to people in Bozeman and rental prices have doubled and tripled in the last few years. What hasn't gone up is wages. So the median income in Montana is somewhere around $48,000 a year. If you look at housing prices in places like Missoula, Bozeman, and Whitefish, even Helena anymore, and Butte is approaching that as well, if you look at housing prices in those places, you can't make that work on $47,000 a year. You know, you can't buy a multimillion dollar home. You can't buy a $500,000 home on $47,000 a year.
A lot of people that I interviewed for that story also couldn't afford to leave. They didn't have the money to pack up and go elsewhere. And these are people who've been in Bozeman for, you know, decades. These are not people that arrived recently and they have been priced out. And you see this now in Missoula and you see it a little bit of Butte too. So what you're getting is people who used to be able to have a pretty decent working class income, working really hard, but they could still live here, can no longer do that. And so what you see then is the splintering of the community because you have big money coming in with no ties or allegiance to the community. So you see a splintering of the community people being pushed out to other places. I guess probably the best way to figure out what happens next is look at somewhere like Sun Valley, Vail or Jackson, Wyoming and what those communities look like. You know, they're about 10 years ahead of us on the gentrification model. The difference, and I think we've talked about this, the difference that what's happening in Montana, it's not happening in one or two small mountain towns. It's happening in our biggest cities. So it's happening in like the places people would go to find a job.
Torgerson: Oh yeah. So then where do you go? Cause you can't find a job in the biggest cities, right?
McLaughlin: Right, so like if you're in Colorado and get priced outta Boulder, maybe you can go to Denver because it's bigger. But that's not the case here anymore because Billings is pretty drastically affected as well. You know, Billings is still a little easier because it's big. But also if you are living in the mountains of Western Montana, why would you move to Billings? It's a different kind of, you know, it's not the place that you want. It's not, the culture that you are accustomed to, it’s just a different feeling. You'd probably leave the state. And I do know a number of people who have just left the state and given up.
Torgerson: From your interview with Ryanne, she said, “you feel like Plentywood [which is the county seat of where I grew up, Sheridan County] is gentrification proof. But these are global issues. It's a global economy. International buyers in other places are affecting rural communities now.” And that just struck a chord too because you know, you think that places like Billings are far northeast Montana are immune but the gentrification is coming for everywhere.
McLaughlin: Yeah. What is happening in Northeast Montana, like in terms of – I was there a couple years ago and it seemed pretty chill – but are people buying up property there?
Torgerson: Well I think that there's an amenity migration in terms of people who are recreational hunters so people buying up second homes, if you will, that they're at for a couple of weeks outta the year during like pheasant hunting season.
McLaughlin: Okay. Okay. Yeah. So it hasn't gotten crazy. I mean maybe the remoteness of Plentywood will protect it from the craziness.
Torgerson: Yeah, no near like what's going on in Bozeman.
And I think there are, I mean there are a number of different types of people moving to Montana too, like we've talked about. And like I'm planning my move back to Montana as someone who grew up there, but I’m also going to be driving in with Washington State license plates.
McLaughlin: Well Washington's like a neighbor. I don't think that you'll get any hate gestures for that.
Do you though, do you think, I mean this is an impossible question, but would you have moved here if you didn't have any connection to it?
Torgerson: I guess for myself. I don't know. I think that what draws me home is because I'm super connected to the land and like the landscape because I was, you know, brought up so close to it.
McLaughlin: So what do you think the solution to all of this mess is?
Torgerson: Well, I think education and cultivating empathy for people who aren't able to afford to live there anymore. And I think some real policy changes need to be done so that people are making wages that enable them to live here and afford homes.
McLaughlin: Yeah, you and I are on exactly the same path. I think the most important thing is that we talk about it because for yeah, a number of years now as this has been happening, we didn't talk about it. We talked about it like we were saying in very weird terms that were not accurate and we need to work on having the language to discuss it.
But this idea of building more empathy among people is super, super important too, because there's resentment on both sides. There's resentment from working class Montanans who've been here for a long time. There's also a lot of resentment from people and a lot of classism from people who have moved in and a lack of understanding of the place. I don't remember if I told you this, just an example of this, but, a couple of years ago as working on a story for science magazine about grizzly bears and there was some lawsuit over, I don't remember what it was if it was hunting grizzly bears or something. And so, um, I had called a scientist who lives in the Paradise Valley, which has been kind of a wealth enclave for a long time. This is down by Big Sky. He's a bear scientist, and I called him to interview him. And I was just making casual conversation, I'm from Butte, you know, not that far from where you live. He stopped the conversation. Paused and said, okay, so do you understand what I'm saying? And then he wanted my credentials to prove that I was… I obviously didn't use him in the story because – no, thank you, sir. But just to show, and I have a million examples like that going back my entire life. Like the contempt and the classism is unhinged at times. So I think that this idea of building empathy is super, super important. Because I mean, if nothing else, if you move here or you get your second home here, at some point, no one's going to be able to work in your restaurants. But the larger point, of course is that we should wanna build functioning communities where everyone can exist.
Torgerson: I've been thinking lately about like, well, we've been talking about myths and how, people who are less grounded in the history or a lived experience of Montana have myths about it. At one hand, they don't understand class as you just described in that story during that interview, or that people from working class backgrounds have a wealth of knowledge of their own. But they, they also like fetishize manual labor, and then they have this, this idea of what rural is this pastoral idea. And then on the other hand, people who were maybe raised in these industries have a myth that that was like kind of the golden era and that the past is potentially preferable to the future. And so I'm wondering how, like, change is inevitable here, but how can we come together and create something that is good for all?
McLaughlin: That’s the question at the center of it all, isn't it? I don't know too many people who mythologize the past, you know, mining and logging are really dangerous jobs. I was talking to someone the other day, an older gentleman who grew up in Butte who said that he didn't know anyone his parents' age, who didn't have a relative that died in the mines. I mean, these were deadly jobs. They were not cute. And so I don't think there's a lot of romantic romanticization of people wanting to go back and work in underground mining. I think that people are pretty happy with the idea of being able to work a decent job and go outside and do the things they love to do. The issue right now is that it's becoming a realm for the wealthy instead of ordinary people. So I think that we just need to come together. I think honestly, that most Montanans believe in the same things with regard to public lands and access and preserving the environment and the land. But I feel like maybe we're not being listened to on that.
Torgerson: And the romanticizing of the past might be more of a plain's reality beacuse I think that like just looking at how agriculture has been modernized and with the mechanization of everything that there's fewer and fewer people living in the community. So people have this like, oh, remember when we had softball teams kind of nostalgia.
McLaughlin: But that's huge. Like, that’s a big deal. So what do you do with that? Like how do you, how do you fix that?
Torgerson: I’m not sure, that's a, that's a big question.
McLaughlin: Can we not just do incentives to send the remote workers to Plentywood?
Torgerson: Yeah, that's a good idea. Put some more kids in those schools.
McLaughlin: Plentywood wants people. Give them people. It's still Montana. They can tell people they live in Montana. They get the cultural cache. Plus it's beautiful out there. Go to Plentywood. And that's the other thing, just thinking about like the housing crisis in Western Montana, you know, the current state government solution, if you can call it that, is to get rid of zoning, which I mean, let me tell you. Okay. I live in Butte and we kind of don't have zoning. They pretend we do, but we don’t, it’s mayhem.
Torgerson: That's so crazy. It seems like zoning is inevitable.
McLaughlin: Of course, it is. I mean, and the thing is, when you don't have construction companies that are willing to build affordable housing because there's no reason to, when they can make a lot more money building other types of housing, why would they do it?
You know, if you turn everything over to the free market, the free market is gonna favor people with money. Always.
Torgerson: Yeah. I feel like that’s something I'll get into more with Ryanne and just like savage capitalism as she's written about, and the need to create plans before developers create plans for your community, for community members to come together and create a vision.
McLaughlin: Right, but I think because for so long, Montana was desperate for growth and development. Now that we have it, people who are in in political power are going, oh yeah, this is exactly what we need. Just bring it on. Don't question it.
Torgerson: Could you speak to like, the risks that arise if gentrification and rising inequality just continue and if we just accept any growth that comes our way?
McLaughlin: Well, I mean, if it keeps happening the way that it's happening, you lose the culture of the place. And don't you want a functional community where you have friends and neighbors that come from all walks of life and are interesting people? Or do you wanna just live next door to a person of the same wealth and social class? Missoula in particular, I feel like Missoula was on the cusp, and they're about to really turn the corner with this new development that's going in downtown next to the river where the Missoulian building used to be, and they're putting up tons of high end condos at which at one point the developer actually said, these aren't for people from Missoula.
Why is the city allowing that kind of development to take place in a town where people live full time, pay property taxes, are involved in the community, depend on local services? Why would you allow that kind of development to take over a prominent downtown corner of your city when that's the attitude of the people that are driving it. I just don't understand why you would think that was a good idea.
I mean, shouldn't we have a state where people's kids can afford to live and go to college here and get a job here? You know, shouldn't we have that?
Torgerson: Yeah. I think that this was an article that you linked to from one of your Substack, blog, representative Danny Tanenbaum of Missoula in a 2021 Montana Free press article said “we can no longer be members of the communities we grew up in. We're being evicted from our own state. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but it's the reality for an increasing number of Montanans.” And I feel really privileged to have the opportunity to move back when there are other Montanans that are leaving.
McLaughlin: Yeah. Well, I mean, right. Because technically I remote work too, right? I mean, I've spent the last two years writing a book, but at the same time, I'm pretty deeply invested in my community.
Torgerson: And you're writing about your community too, so.
McLaughlin: Yeah. I mean, I think there is, and maybe that's part of the solution, is convincing people who come in with a lot of wealth and power that they should also be investing in local communities and investing in building it up rather than locking it off.
Torgerson: And so I'll be sharing an episode after your episode airs. It's a podcast swap with the Missoula-based, podcast Stories for Action and she has an interview with MSU Extension Reimagining Rural Program manager, Tara Mastel, and she talks about how newcomers and established residents can build bridges.
McLaughlin: Fantastic. Yeah, that's exactly what we need though, because you can't, you know, you can't say, oh, you can't move here. And, and I don't think anyone wants to say that. I think that we just need to get rid of all this pretense around it and talk honestly about it and figure out solutions so that everyone can enjoy the place.
Torgerson: Yes. I agree. Well, I wanna leave us with a quote and then just kind of ask you a concluding question. So, it's from K. Ross Toole in his 1985 “Winds of Montana lecture in which he warned, “While space is costly, it has now become extraordinarily precious and therein lies the root of things. And therein lies the root of optimism on many people’s part, because America has not run out of space, but it is about run out of quality space. And it is quality space Montana has in abundance. Beautiful space, clean space, quiet space, space rich in the qualities Americans, having increasingly lost it elsewhere, are now seeking like they have never sought it before….If space and distance have been Montana’s historical curse, and they have been, they have now become Montana’s blessing and it would be a terrible irony if we were to turn a curse into a blessing only to turn it back into a curse.”
McLaughlin: Guess what? We turned it back into a curse. Sorry, Ross.
Torgerson: I know, I found that and I was like, oh, this really speaks to, we're talking about.
McLaughlin: I mean, it’s beautiful. But he saw it coming, didn't he?
Torgerson: Yeah, in 1985!
McLaughlin: Yeah. I mean, I'm not surprised because that's when everything shut down in Butte and it was clear that working class jobs were going away and nobody was gonna fix that. Anyway, sorry, your question?
Torgerson: No, that’s o.k. I just read a lengthy quote. But I guess just in hearing what hopes do you have for the future of your community in the state of Montana?
McLaughlin: I think the rest of the state is on a path to becoming something we're not going to like very much in a very short period of time. Unless people start thinking more deeply about this and start taking some action to build community and like you were talking about, build empathy and look for actual real solutions. You know, we are well past the point where you can blame anything changing in Montana on those pesky Californians. We need to actually discuss reality and figure out how to make it better for everyone. So if there's some recognition of this among people who actually affect government policy, then I would have some hope for things. There hasn't been yet, though, so I don't know.
Torgerson: Hopefully in the short years to come, there will be.
McLaughlin: Right. And also all the normal people can just move to Butte. That's happening already. We;ll just building a community of normals.
Torgerson: I hope that, I hope that I'm invite.
McLaughlin: Of course you are. Of course. When they priced you at a Bozeman, come on in.
Torgerson: Oh, that’s awesome. So for people who are interested in learning more about like the topic of gentrification and class inequality in the Mountain West, do you have any recommendations for books or films or anything that they could go to?
McLaughlin: Well, I think Justin Farrell's book “Billionaire Wilderness” is fantastic. Also, Ryanne who you've been talking about, her work is fantastic. There has been, and this is a maybe a little off, but the newspapers in Jackson, Wyoming do a great job of covering the issue. They're really, really good. And also the Idaho Press has been very, very good. It’s kind of an issue that's just waiting for a podcast to be made. Have you heard any podcasts about it?
Torgerson: Not that are dedicated to it, but I need to, I need to go out and look.
McLaughlin: Maybe I should do one. I mean, it's like such a good podcast topic, isn't it?
Torgerson: It is, yeah. I think that you should start that.
McLaughlin: Okay. I'll get right on that.
Torgerson: After your book tour.
McLaughlin: Right. Oh lord.
Torgerson (narrating): Thank you so much Kathleen for your time and welcomed perspective on a troubling topic. Keep your eye out for Kathleen’s book “Blood Money: the Story of Life, Death and Profit Inside America’s Blood Industry” released on February 28, 2023. Part memoir, part reportage, Kathleen’s book furthers her study of the country’s wealth gap by examining the plasma industry. Visit Kathleen’s episode page at reframingrural.org to find links to where you can pre-order her book. And you can also access her articles, “Who can afford to live in the American west when locals can’t?” and “Cultural Extraction at the edge of the abyss,” along with the books and lectures we discussed in today’s episode from Justin Farrell, Ryanne Pilgeram and K. Ross Toole.
Next month I’ll bring you with me to Dover, Idaho, the site of Ryanne Pilgeram’s book “Pushed Out: Contested Development and Rural Gentrification in the U.S. West. “In Dover we’ll take a close look at the area’s income inequality, uncovering how the growing unaffordability of the former mill town is affecting longtime residents and their sense of community, while damaging the area’s wetlands and a site where many Kalispel artifacts have been found.
Ryanne Pilgeram: You can hear all the construction equipment and you might think that it's to be fixing up this community hall and this church that are central to this community. But instead, it's to build this probably million dollar home next door to it, while you know they are trying to get grants to rebuild their community hall. So I think when we think about like, what is happening with the politics of the West, like, why are people feeling left behind? Why is there's this frustration? Why are people voting the way they're voting? We just fundamentally, don't acknowledge what it's like to exist in that space, where, on the one hand, you don't even have money to rebuild your community hall. And on the other hand, you know, this private home that may only be occupied 30% of the time.
Torgerson (narrating): I produced and co-edited today’s story on Duwamish aboriginal territory with recordings captured on Duwamish and Nez Perce, Blackfeet, Salish and Shoshone lands. Reframing Rural’s episode and theme music was composed and recorded by Aaron Spieldenner and Hazy Bay Music. Aaron Spieldenner was also the principal editor of this episode. Season Three Groundwork is funded in part by Humanities Washington, Humanities Montana, Headwaters Foundation and listeners like you.
To access resources referenced in this episode, full transcripts and to make a donation to Reframing Rural visit reframingrural.org. Reframing Rural is a fiscally sponsored project of the Montana History Foundation and an original series by Tree Rings Records, LLC. Thank you for listening!