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Reinventing the West: Lodges in the U.S.

THE QUINTESSENTIAL NEW LODGE OF THIS TYPE IS PAPOOSE CREEK, located a half-hour west of Yellowstone National Park. Its founder, Roger Lang, received two degrees from Stanford: a bachelor's in ecological anthropology and a master's in Latin American studies. After graduating, he couldn't find a job, being too much of an enviro-liberal, he says, for most government agencies. However, studying how Third World debt burdens were forcing Brazil to exploit its rain forest had taught him something about international banking. So, in 1986, he went into the software business, developing applications to help global banks manage risk. A decade later, his company, Infinity Financial Technology, went public, and in 1999 he sold it.

Newly armed with "liquidity"—as he delicately puts it—he could return to his first love, the environment. He owns a place in Brazil, and he bought Sun Ranch, an enormous spread in Montana, from kick-and-chop actor Steven Seagal. There he started raising Conservation Beef—which means the cows have to act in an environmentally conscious manner so they can get the Nature Conservancy's seal of approval when their shanks are sent to the organic grocery stores.

But Lang didn't want to be just another gentleman rancher. He wanted to set up a lodge that would serve as a model for sustaining enlightened land management through tourism. "I'm very pro-business, and in that sense I'm very idealistic," he says. The economic fact driving most of these new lodges is that the old northern Rockies economy, based on lumber, mining, and cattle ranching, is no longer as viable, and the region must cultivate a tourism business in order to preserve its beauty and its living standards.

Lang bought a house near his ranch and converted it to a five-bedroom lodge, using lumber reclaimed from old barns to avoid cutting down trees. Then he built three guest cabins on glacial moraines so that if the nearby Papoose Creek ever changed course, it would flow around them. The cabin roofs are made from a metal meant to rust, creating a "homesteader" look (that is, if homesteaders' cabins ever had massive picture windows, balconies, mini-bars, ambient floor heating, and benches in the oversized showers, for people who don't like to stand up when they wash).

The fishing in the adjacent Madison River is unsurpassed, and the horseback rides are magnificent. I'm a veteran of trail rides on docile nose-in-the-butt-of-the-animal-in-front-of-them horses, and I can tell you I've never ridden through more beautiful country. (And it will never be developed, because Lang is putting conservation easements on it.) For experienced riders there's plenty of open range for loping, and of course there is the full complement of wildlife, such as elk, eagles, even a pack of five wolves that has drifted over from Yellowstone.

Papoose Creek Lodge has a home-like kitchen that blends into the dining area, so you can wander in and learn bread making if you want. There's yoga and massages on request, and after dinner the lodge brings in guest biologists, artists, and historians to lead discussions—for all those Information Age burghers who aren't happy unless everything they do feels a bit like graduate school.

The only drawback is that the ranch policy is hostile to children; you can't bring in anyone under 12 unless you rent the whole hotel ($24,750 for six nights). This is a problem for me, because I believe that every father should bring his kids out West at least once to show them what a rugged outdoorsman he is, and he has to do it while they're young enough to fall for the act. But other than that, Papoose Creek, and other ranches like it, cater very well to the targeted clientele: upscale urban dwellers and suburbanites who spend their lives dashing from airports to office parks. (At least, the kind who can afford the room rates—from $250 to $500 a night.)


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