“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing.”
BY TODD WILKINSON
As often is the case, the passage of time brings a warm diaphanous gloam to the way we remember the past. Some 30 years ago, in the months before the film A River Runs Through It began appearing on big screens, director Robert Redford told part-time Livingston, Montana, resident and writer Toby Thompson to “get ready. This film is going to change everything.”
In hindsight, it is impossible to overstate just how prescient Bob Redford’s prediction was. It’s a view shared today by the son of Norman Maclean himself, the latter being author of the novella set in Montana and widely considered one of the best fishing stories ever written in American history. A River Runs Through It rightfully ranks right up there with Ernest Hemingway’s Pulitzer Prize-winning tale, The Old Man and the Sea.
The Hemingway mention is more than anecdotal. Not only have generations of the writer’s fans made pilgrimages to the places where he fished, lived and visited—including Cooke City, Montana, and Ketchum, Idaho—but the mystique of Hemingway’s association with Key West, Florida, is blamed, in part, for both the popularization and development pressure placed upon the once quaint saltwater fishing mecca.
As for A River Runs Through It, John Maclean has waded often into the fleeting afterglow of his father’s words, the place they were drawn from, the moments they shared together fly fishing the Big Blackfoot River east of Missoula. In 2021, John’s own book, Home Waters: A Chronicle of Family and a River, was published to acclaim for it delves into “the story behind the story.” He reflects on his father’s intent and the dreamlike spell the book—and film—put on people who became smitten with an idealized sense of what Montana was—and is. He shared a little-known fact that while his father was still alive and having rejected a first script written by a giant of Montana literature, the late William Kittredge, it appeared the movie might never be made.
But in 1992, two years after Norman Maclean died, it did.
Now, 30 years later, what impact did the movie A River Runs Through It have on the state where it was made? What if it hadn’t been made? And, can any parallels be drawn to the effects of another visual storytelling phenomenon—the fictional TV melodrama Yellowstone—set in the real Paradise Valley north of Yellowstone National Park?
Notably, in the allegorical fable of Yellowstone, a defiant ranch family led by actor Kevin Costner as its patriarch, battles to prevent ruthless out-of-state developers, backed by a capital equity firm based in the East, from ruining the pastoral character of Montana by building a massive Big Sky-like resort community just beyond Yellowstone Park’s northern border. Sometimes, in this third decade of the 21st century, it’s difficult to distinguish where make-believe begins and reality ends.
Redford genuinely loves Montana. Unlike others who make movies, using natural beauty as a supporting actor, conservation to him is a conviction rather than a fashion statement.
John Maclean still steps into streams. Dividing his time between suburban Washington, D.C., where he served prestigiously as a diplomatic correspondent for The Chicago Tribune, and his family’s getaway at Seeley Lake, Montana, he occasionally drives over to the Blackfoot. Just as his father taught him, he floats his line in a four-count rhythm onto seams of water where trout lie. But, as he explains it, he isn’t so much trying to land a big fish. “I try to catch the essence of what once was,” he says.
What once was—as three generations of the Maclean family knew the river—is gone, forever carried away into the current of change. “People did not boat the Blackfoot, not in my Dad’s time and not when I was a kid,” John says. “Now you’ll encounter between 50 and 100 boats coming down.”
In the three decades that have passed since A River Runs Through It transformed the public perception of fly fishing, so, too, have the backdrops and communities where the film was set.
Bozeman, downstream in the Gallatin Valley near where much of River was filmed, has experienced an inundation that, from the perspective of an extended real estate boomtime, blew in like a hurricane and never left. Livingston and Paradise Valley, too. Impacts are evident in how the human footprint of development has expanded, how former cattle and farmlands have become recreation retreats and how the venerated rivers themselves are now swarmed with anglers, sometimes with a frenzy mirroring the flurry of a caddis hatch.
A River Runs Through It, the book, was first published in May 1976 and while it remains a cult classic for American place-based literature, fly fishing in its aftermath still emanated only boutique appeal. The film, however, set off a mass adoption of fly fishing as a sign of lifestyle status. Outings on trout streams in the Northern Rockies came to represent their own class of trophy, like pieces of a portfolio that include homes, land and memberships in prestigious country clubs.
Akin to Thompson, I, too, interviewed Redford on a couple of occasions. In August 1993, I flew down to Utah from Bozeman and spent a day tagging along with him at Sundance, home to the institute he founded to champion independent films and where Redford’s own commitment to environmental protection was galvanized. Redford told me it was his hope and sincerest intent with the film to communicate the reverence for wild water that the Maclean clan embraced as an ethos—a sacred marriage of spirituality and immersion in the sublime unmarred elements. On the page, it was stated clearly in the novella’s opening line: “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing.”
Redford wanted it to inspire new generations of protectors, but conceded the inherent danger always is the unpredictability and unintended consequences of human nature.
Robert Redford has never been a superficial, fair-weather advocate for nature. Formidable, he is outspoken as an environmentalist, fierce in lending his voice to protect the natural world, be it as a spokesman for organizations fighting to protect public lands or narrating documentaries on topics ranging from wolves to restoring San Francisco Bay. He genuinely loves Montana. Unlike others who make movies, using natural beauty as a supporting actor, conservation to him is a conviction rather than a fashion statement.
Articulate on issues, he’s never held back out of fear his activism might affect his appeal at the box office or his bankability as an actor/director. Conversant both in the science and philosophy of biodiversity, he is an inveterate reader. In fact, it was noted that Montana writer Thomas McGuane handed him a copy of A River Runs Through It after Redford complained that good contemporary stories about the West were hard to find.
Somewhat daunting, the moment I strolled into his office at Sundance, he had a stack of clippings from stories I’d written in newspapers and magazines on his desk. He already had sized up whether our visit would last an hour or the day. Our conversation fortunately lasted all day and included a chat the following morning. When he told Thompson the film would have impact, he wanted it to inspire new generations of protectors, but conceded the inherent danger always is the unpredictability and unintended consequences of human nature.
In the years since the movie appeared, Montana became world-famous as a destination for fly fishing. Multimillion-dollar mansions, once rare, now abound in the western mountain valleys. Guest lodges have become sites for hosting corporate retreats, where days on the water angling are used not as venues for transcendental experiences but “team-building exercises.” Owning expensive gear and driving a tricked-out SUV to the boat ramp is a display of prestige, and “good days” are frequently measured by number of fish caught.
John Maclean and Redford share the conviction that this is the very antithesis of the kind of modest unpretentiousness Maclean the elder was venerating. As John himself has become a committed advocate for protecting rivers as their own life force—a point emphasized in Home Waters—he is horrified by how fly fishing in Montana has become industrialized. What role did the film play? “I think the correct noun is accelerant,” he notes. “You can’t put the blame simply on the film. It had its own effect but there were a lot of contributing factors.”
My endurance didn’t just come from myself. It came from the people I surrounded myself with. Society helped me get to where I am.
Paul “Rock” Ringling, born a Montana rancher’s son out on the state’s eastern prairie, says the movie was merely a flashpoint ignited by a number of converging components. “There’s a bunch of things interwoven in here,” he says. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, many ranches and farms in western Montana, including valleys like Paradise, the Boulder, Shields, Bitterroot and Gallatin, were beset by high interest rates and low cattle prices. “A lot of smaller ranch properties were rendered uneconomical. They had natural amenities on them and they were going to be for sale as a discount. This coincided with the explosion of wealth creation on Wall Street, in Silicon Valley and with Texans in the oil business. And then, on the back of that trend, comes the movie.”
Ringling’s father was a state legislator, and his family roots include ties to the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Concerned for the future of his home state, Rock went to work for the Montana Land Reliance more than half his adult life ago and his career in land conservation overlapped almost perfectly with the years between the movie’s release and now. He was with MLR for 29 years. When he started, the organization had worked with property owners in Montana to put 40,000 acres under conservation easement that permanently protect land in exchange for tax breaks.
Today, MLR’s portfolio of easements spans 1.2 million acres. Those protected private lands and waters have bettered the prospects for survival of public wildlife moving seasonally across public and private ground. Direct cause and effect between the movie and current growth challenges can be difficult to pin down, Ringling notes, but consider this: Prior to A River Runs Through It, Big Sky, Montana, was largely a middling ski resort community in the Northern Rockies. Five years after the movie’s debut, the Yellowstone Club was founded and the gated community of nearby Spanish Peaks was created, both of which metamorphosed the dale below Lone Peak into a four-season elite destination for the rich and famous.
Big Sky has ballooned. In the last few decades, its population has increased three times faster than Aspen or Sun Valley and five times faster than Jackson Hole. Billions upon billions of dollars’ worth of real estate has changed hands. And ready access to fly fishing on the Gallatin, the river where the movie was made, is touted as a major attraction. Rivers throughout the region have experienced development near their banks.
Bozeman, the fastest growing micropolitan city in America, had a population of less than 25,000 in 1992 when River debuted, and today is double that. At current growth rates, Bozeman and Gallatin County will double in less than 20 years to reach 220,000, the current population of Salt Lake City proper (not the entire metro); By the 2060s, if the inundation continues with people fleeing mega-metro areas and climate change-related impacts (soaring heat and water shortages in the desert, rising tidal surges along the coasts and outbreaks of catastrophic wildfires), the Bozeman area could double again to reach 440,000, about the current size of Minneapolis proper.
“Montana wasn’t ready to deal with the land rush that the movie helped ignite—but then again, I don’t know how it could have been,” Ringling says. The notion that handshake deals were how many transactions were handled for generations was no idyll. But outside developers, seizing upon lax regulations in counties and the belief that all growth was good, set up western valleys to be exploited without much thought given to what would soon disappear, he says.
“The problem is, it ain’t Montana anymore when the valleys turn into giant suburbs and the rural people, pastures and wildlife get replaced by subdivisions.”
During 1991, when the film crew and actors in A River Runs Through It were moving between shooting locations, a few memorable casting scenes were filmed along the Gallatin River north of Big Sky. On a rare day off, Redford received an invitation to get together with an old dear friend, an actress with whom he starred in a few films —among them Barefoot in the Park and The Electric Horseman. Turning off U.S. Highway 191, he drove up Spanish Creek Road, heading deeper into the Flying D Ranch for a rendezvous with Jane Fonda and her new husband, Ted Turner, who had acquired the sprawling property a couple of years earlier.
Redford learned more about Turner’s plans for building a larger bison herd at the former cattle ranch. Sharing Turner’s and Fonda’s convictions about conservation, he was intrigued. Turner’s purchase of several large ranches in the West and populating them with bison, almost single handedly leading a modern appreciation for the species, is today the stuff of legend.
In southwest Montana, the symbolism of Turner buying the 113,000-acre Flying D and putting its days as a working cattle operation to rest, signaled its own dramatic seismic shift in land ownership that only accelerated, coincidentally or not, after River hit theaters. It fueled the trend of traditional livestock operations being converted to recreation and hunting properties that continues today, Ringling says.
While Montana’s “discovery” has brought numerous expressions of unwanted change, there have been two upsides, Ringling says. One was that new buyers protected ranchland via conservation easements. Secondly, the desire to have private fly-fishing water on their land inspired them to restore streams that had been harmed from overgrazing by livestock. Restoration has come to many streams that have had their function as spawning habitat for wild native trout revitalized.
Eric O’Keefe in 2007 co-launched The Land Report, the vaunted source for identifying the top landowners annually, in terms of volume of acres, in the U.S.
I asked O’Keefe if A River Runs Through It had been a catalyst for the explosion in large properties becoming a coveted class of assets. “Definitely. You cannot underestimate the impact of those visuals, and by that I’m talking about Redford’s cinematography and screen magic coupled with the ascendent star of Brad Pitt [as Maclean’s younger brother, Paul],” O’Keefe explains.
He points out how Montana land broker Greg Fay launched Fay Fly Fishing Properties in 1992. “I see the impact of the film in countless ways with how people are driven to enjoy the Montana outdoor experience.” Where skeptics have claimed that properties with conservation easements attached to them, such as many of Fay Ranch properties, are a liability to value since they limit development, O’Keefe says healthy landscapes command a premium. “Phenomenally, heightened demand has pushed prices well beyond any potential loss of value associated with the easement,” he explains. “In a flat market, a conservation easement will result in a lower price but in a hyper-intense market like we have today, preserving, enhancing, conserving land is not resulting in lower values.”
Ringling notes that for every magnanimous large land buyer there are others willing to carve up wildlife habitat and open space in order to profit. While Taylor Sheridan’s series Yellowstone is fiction, the portrayal of unscrupulous capital investors from Wall Street seeking to make a killing on real estate is not. Many, in fact, believe that Yellowstone is having a far more negative effect on southwest Montana than A River Runs Through It. Two of the fastest-growing job categories are real estate brokers and outfitters/guides. “They’re all out there telling people they can live their dream by owning part of the West,” Ringling says. “You can’t fault people for falling in love with Montana. Compared to where they’re coming from, they see all of this open space and ask, ‘What’s the problem?’ The problem is, it ain’t Montana anymore when the valleys turn into giant suburbs and the rural people, pastures and wildlife get replaced by subdivisions.”
Old ranches and farms have over the years been carved up into 20- or 40-acre ranchettes that create a kind of sprawl that destroys wildlife habitat and blights open spaces. On top of that, with conveyance laws, the inheritors to those properties can divide them in half.
Three factors that did not exist before separate the early 1990s and today: social media that has hastened the loss of places whose locations used to be obscure and little known; climate change as a grave concern for humanity; and the arrival of technology that allows people to live practically anywhere and work remotely. The latter has expressed itself mightily during the pandemic.
“I have a cowboy friend, Edgar, who says he likes to ride his horse to the top of a hill at night and look to the east where there’s not a light or nothing that would indicate Montana has changed,” Ringling says. “He does it just so he can spend a few more moments in denial. But he knows he has to turn around. When he peers across the western mountain valleys there’s one yard light after another.”
Not long ago, Ringling and his wife were out watching Western curlew birds with friends in a valley where the tentacles of Bozeman have not yet spread. “They told us to just listen. [To be] absolutely quiet. I think people come to Montana with a vision of seeing themselves standing in the middle of a trout stream, bathed in solitude and silence and trying to get reconnected with nature,” he explains. “But that’s a far cry from today with a steady line of boats 50 yards apart going down the Madison or the Yellowstone. That’s where the fantasy of the book and the movie ends.”
While land-protection victories have a hard time keeping pace with the expanding footprint of development, there have been some amazing achievements. Along the Blackfoot River, the Blackfoot Challenge has protected 80 percent of the land girding the river corridor as “working” ag and timber lands, in which maintaining ecological health is the commonly shared objective. It’s an initiative that John Maclean praises. Yet, while the currents flowing through the Blackfoot are cleaner than they used to be, thanks to cleanup of abandoned hardrock mines, recreational river traffic has created a bustling corridor his father would find at odds with the solemn solitude he immortalized.
In the final scene of the movie, an elder Norman Maclean is portrayed standing alone in the Blackfoot, haunted by the loss of things he adored most in life, set against the daunting mystery of time immemorial. Behind the modern slogan that humans in the 21st century are “loving places to death,” Maclean’s surviving son notes that the counter is that people, when given a chance, will also rise to defend from harm the places they love.
How a fishing tale for the ages might contribute to an outcome one way or another boils down to the instincts of human nature. And right now, we don’t know how that story ends. But there is the sobering reminder of Redford’s words, that the film was going to change everything. In 30 years, those changes have been epic. What will the Northern Rockies look like in another 15?
CALL TO ACTION
Filmed in part on the Gallatin River, A River Runs Through It has helped popularize the sport of fly fishing. The Gallatin is a special river. It needs attention and protection. Gallatin River Task Force partners with the community to lead conservation and inspire stewardship of the Gallatin River Watershed. Want to help? Visit gallatinrivertaskforce.org to find out about volunteer opportunities.
In the Missoula area or want to support conservation of the Macleans’ famous Blackfoot River? Blackfoot Challenge is leading the effort. Visit blackfootchallenge.org to learn about volunteer and support options.