As rural homebuyers settle on previously undeveloped land, the pattern of land use change is often striking. Where there were once productive fields and agricultural open space, there may be several dozen homes clustered in a rural subdivision far from town. Or, a working ranch is turned into a second home getaway for an out of state landowner.
The concern is focused on a host of ecological and community impacts that include a loss of habitat for local animal populations, effects on the local water supply quality and quantity, collateral social and demographic change to the historical and cultural quality of local communities, and loss of open spaces that help define rural western communities. Additionally, environmentalists and agriculturists alike express anxiety that rural population growth results in loss of productive agricultural land.
Some of the myths that have grown along with rural populations is that most of the rural homeowners are wealthy and from outside the state. They move onto "ranchettes" that were formerly productive agricultural operations to grow llamas and weeds.
During summer 1998 406 house sites in part of Gallatin County were randomly selected as survey sites. At the time of the survey the population of Gallatin County had grown by almost 30% over the last decade while at the time the amount of land in agricultural production fell by almost 40%. The intent of the survey was to describe how house site selection by rural homeowners was associated with land use/land cover patterns and to describe rural residents with respect to socioeconomic characteristics as well as homeowner preferences for house location.
The first analysis explored the he percentage of land cover types occupied by rural homes as compared to the amount of land available within each land cover classification. If some types of land were over or under utilized for rural home development we could determine if certain land use types were disproportionately selected for development. The results from the survey showed that some land use/land cover types seem to be more heavily developed, and presumably more desirable, for rural housing than others. The figure below indicates the percentage of the four habitat types surveyed in the study area and the observed utilization by homeowners as a percentage of available cover (confidence intervals p=.05 [95%]). Forest lands were slightly underutilized with 16.6% of the landscape available for development but only 11.1% utilized for housing. Riparian areas were significantly underutilized (23.8% available and 4.4% utilized). On the other hand, shrub land was considerably over utilized for rural housing (57.9% available, 74.2% utilized) as was agricultural land (1.7% available, 10.3% utilized). The lands targeted for development were consistently the windswept ridgelines that provided views of the Bridger Mountains or Spanish Peaks and of the spectacular sunsets across the Gallatin Valley. The farmland was primarily land that was being surrounded by past development or land near town that had recently been in agricultural production.
The average homeowner in the study area had been a resident of Gallatin County for almost 18.5 years but has lived in their present home for an average of only 10 years. This suggests that many who live in the countryside had recently moved to their present homesite location. It is probable that as they reached retirement age and/or sold a home in town during vigorous real estate prices some moved from nearby Bozeman to a home in the country. The average age of respondents was 50 years and they were somewhat wealthier than other residents of Gallatin County and the state of Montana.
The homes were not large by local standards (mean = 2600 ft 2) until one considers that most only have two people living in them (1300 sq.ft per person). Finally, most rural residents (57%) own 2.5 acres or less. Over a third of the respondents work in the professional service sector and one fifth were retired.
The final set of questions asked homeowners why they chose to live in their current home. Consistent with past research conducted in the region, the scenic view was very important to almost all residents (97.7%) and over 85% expressed a desire to be close to nature; over 75% felt it was important to be located close to nearby recreational opportunity. Over seventy percent of the respondents to the survey expressed a strong desire to live away from others and did not feel it was important to live near schools, work, or shopping. The chart below displays responses to all the location questions.
Conclusions from this small study indicate that indeed agricultural land is consumed by rural homeowners in this part of Gallatin County but it is not necessarily the most productive land. Shrub land on ridgelines was by far the most common place to build a home followed by lower elevation lands. Riparian was almost unused and much remained in agricultural production.
Many residents in the rural homes were long time residents of the area and bring with them value similar to other Bozeman area residents - they simply wanted to move out of town. They tend to over represent the professional workers and retirees who can afford to move into a large new home. Finally, they value the views of nature and recreation that country living can offer and most likely are advocates for the protection of the local wildlife and nature.