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Big Sky, Past and Future

Of Myth and Money at the Yellowstone Club

On a recent tour of the Yellowstone Club, the now-infamous private ski resort near Big Sky, Montana, my tour guide gestured out the window of the SUV. “This is the Taj Mahal of Tim Blixseth,” he said as the gargantuan $100 million Warren Miller Lodge slid into view. While the original Taj Mahal was built in Agra, India, as an enduring symbol of love, the Warren Miller Lodge apparently took its notes from the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. When compared side by side, these two building share striking commonalities: builders with sizeable egos, high-profile divorces and difficult bankruptcy proceedings. Their oversized décor and glitz created a mirage of riches while masking less lustrous behind-the-scenes activity. At the Warren Miller Lodge, however, it appears that the spirit of Montana is gaining the upper hand. The motion sensors operating the immense entrance doors have been switched off. The bears, smart creatures that they are, had been taking advantage of the technology to wander freely into the lodge. Keeping out the uninvited was a key feature touted by Tim and Edra Blixseth when they opened the Yellowstone Club in 1999. In what is now common lore, the property, acquired in part via a land swap with the U.S. Forest Service, was originally tagged to become the Blixseths’ personal vacation retreat until the plans snowballed into a massive real estate development. Now, in the wake of a tumultuous bankruptcy that resulted in the sale of the club and left the Blixseths (now divorced) facing a veritable mountain of legal and financial claims, a new chapter is opening for the spectacular 13,400 acre property. But to see where the club might go from here, it’s useful to consider where it has been -- and how the myth of the Blixseths snowballed out of control.

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Voices of Big Sky: Residents Discuss Their Unique Community

Hardly anyone was born in Big Sky: both part-time and full-time residents are there by choice. This video features a number of residents discussing their impressions of the community, what's special about it, and what might make it even better.

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New High School a Triumph for Big Sky

When Big Sky residents gather Monday to celebrate the opening of the new Lone Peak High School, it will mark the culmination of an arduous campaign to create an institution that could change the nature of the community. No longer will Big Sky teenagers be subject to the hour-long drive along windy, dangerous Highway 191 to get to school in Bozeman. No longer will families be faced with the unpleasant choice of moving away, home schooling, or putting their kids on the bus nine months of the year. So many chose the former that the issue threatened to stunt the evolution of Big Sky. “It’s a weird culture to live in a world in which there are no teenagers,” said Barbara Rowley, a long-time resident and secretary of a non-profit organization called Friends of Big Sky Education. Rowley and her group helped raise funds, garner local support and address the daunting legal and political obstacles to building a new high school.

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Scientists See Landslide Risk in Big Sky

It’s the spectacular mountains that make Big Sky, Montana what it is, but geologists worry that they’re less solid than they seem. The shale formations in many parts of Big Sky are susceptible to landslides, and many houses have been built in areas that could start moving if there’s a period of exceptionally wet weather. And because Big Sky lies within the Intermountain Seismic Belt—the part of the intermountain west with the highest earthquake potential—risk of sudden landslides is that much greater. In 1959, an earthquake with a 7.5 magnitude struck part of Madison Valley, about 30 miles south of the Big Sky-Moonlight Basin area, triggering a landslide that killed 28 people. After damming a section of the Madison River, this event coined the name “Quake Lake.” How developers, brokers and home buyers in Big Sky deal with the landslide risk is all over the map. In many cases buyers are aware of the problem and invest in engineering solutions, but in other cases they’re in the dark. As reported on NewWest.Net, a recently settled lawsuit against the Spanish Peaks development alleged that known risks were not disclosed, and that the sales staff was told to “baffle them with BS” if people asked about the issue. Geological surveys and soil-sampling are generally required as part of the subdivision approval process, but those reports are not always shared with buyers. In the accompanying video story, several experienced geologists discuss their concerns.

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Big Sky Pushes Limits of Do-It-Yourself Government

There is no Montana town like Big Sky. Actually, to be a tad more literal, there is no Montana town called Big Sky. Officially, Big Sky the town doesn’t exist. Conspiracy theory? No. Big Sky does exist, but as those who have lived and worked there the longest will be quick to tell you, as a community, not a town. And in Big Sky, there is a big difference between those two words. It’s the difference between its past as a recreational oasis for second home owners from all around the country, and its present as home to a more traditional cast of locals who live and work there year-round: teachers, firefighters, business owners. The issue of incorporation – whether Big Sky the community should become Big Sky the town, complete with a mayor, town council, boundaries and taxes – has sprung up and died down every once in a while since Big Sky Resort was carved from a remote mountain valley almost 40 years ago. But the debate has become more heated in recent years: as the makeup of Big Sky’s community changes, many are wondering whether it’s time for Big Sky’s rules to change along with it.

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Big Sky, Past and Future

For a couple of decades after Chet Huntley opened Big Sky Resort in 1973, the Southwest Montana ski destination was an odd anomaly – not quite developed enough to compete with the Vails and Aspens of the world, not quite big enough and charming enough to have a strong sense of place, and not quite close enough to anything to be a likely spot for intensive real estate development. But over the past ten years, all that has changed. The opening of Lone Mountain Tram in 1995 put Big Sky on the map as a must-visit for serious Rocky Mountain skiers. The development of Moonlight Basin added diversity and critical mass to the skiing and other recreation opportunities – and a lot of nice property to the second-home market. The launch of the Yellowstone Club in 1999 brought cachet, rich people, and lots of attention (some good, and some not so good). When the global real estate bubble began to inflate in 2003, Big Sky exploded. Home values tripled over the following four years, and contractors and tradesmen – some 5,000 a day at the peak – flooded in from Bozeman and elsewhere to build condos, commercial centers, and ultra-fancy houses for the ultra-rich. The Meadow Village and the Town Center and the Mountain Village – the three separate commercial complexes in the valley – remained modest by big-time resort standards, but with more jobs, more people and more money, Big Sky was growing up.

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Everlands Meltdown Leaves Montana’s Lone Mountain Ranch in Limbo

In 2007, with the mountain real estate boom still in full swing, Bob and Vivian Schaap, the long-time owners of the iconic Lone Mountain Ranch in Big Sky, Mont., decided it was time to sell. After vetting several prospective buyers, they reached a deal with a nascent luxury vacation club called Everlands, which promised to keep the historic property intact even as they transformed it into a mostly members-only resort. But the ink was barely dry on the $16 million deal when the real estate market went south, taking Everlands and virtually the entire luxury vacation club industry along with it. Today, the Lone Mountain Ranch is open for business as usual. But its owner, saddled with at least $40 million in debt, is all but out of business, and the future of Lone Mountain Ranch and four other Everlands properties is by no means assured.

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History Lives at Lone Mountain Ranch

Since it was homesteaded in 1915, the Lone Mountain Ranch has been a great asset to Big Sky, Mont. Throughout the last near-century, the property has been used in many different ways -- working ranch, camps of various kinds, and, for the last thirty years, a much-beloved guest ranch. Although there has been some recent question as to what will happen to the Lone Mountain Ranch in the wake of the economic slump and the virtual collapse of its new owner, Everlands Inc., the ranch has continued in much the same way as it has for decades. This video story depicts Lone Mountain Ranch's rich history from the early 1900's to the present, and includes an interviews with previous owners Bob and Vivian Schaap, current LMR employees, and historical photos.

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