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The Last Best Place®?

Shock -- together with shoot-that-varmint anger -- is what many Montanans felt when they heard about multimillionaire David E. Lipson's effort to lock up commercial use of the popular state slogan “The Last Best Place.”
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Rich guys have come west to shop. They have bought ranches with soul-stirring scenery and settled in -- usually for just a few weeks a year -- to savor what Montanans proudly call "The Last Best Place."

David Letterman has done it, as have Ted Turner, Tom Brokaw and thousands of non-celebrities. These high-net-worth interlopers have raised eyebrows and land values, but for the most part they have not raised hackles -- until this summer.

That's when word got out that David E. Lipson, a multimillionaire entrepreneur who was once chairman of Frederick's of Hollywood, the racy lingerie company, was not content with merely owning a big spread in Montana. He wants to trademark "The Last Best Place."

If Lipson has his way -- and six of his applications have been all but granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office -- his various companies would have exclusive commercial use of "The Last Best Place" as a brand name. The phrase could be used to sell anything -- real estate, footwear, maybe a fruit drink.

"It is a normal business practice," Lipson said over lunch at his 37,000-acre ranch, called Paws Up, here in the Blackfoot Valley. "You trademark your brands."

Lipson said he would not try to prevent the state of Montana from using "The Last Best Place" in tourist promotion and was merely seeking to protect his business interests from trademark infringement.

"We were amazed that all the rights to 'The Last Best Place' hadn't been trademarked," he said. "It was shocking."

Shock -- together with shoot-that-varmint anger -- is what many Montanans felt when they heard about Lipson's effort to lock up commercial use of a euphonious and wildly popular slogan he did not invent.

Populist rage
"We just don't like big shots coming from someplace else and claiming they own something they don't," said Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a rancher himself, as well as the first Democratic governor of Montana since 1988. "Who is he? The Wizard of Oz? We don't think he is the Wizard of Oz, and I sure as hell ain't the scarecrow!"

Lipson's reputation in Montana has taken a terrible pounding this summer. Local newspapers keep mentioning the $2.8 million fine he was ordered to pay in 2001 to resolve a Securities and Exchange Commission charge of insider trading in a case involving Supercuts, the nationwide haircut chain of which he was chief executive in the mid-1990s.

Articles also note that Lipson has been sued by a Great Falls contractor for allegedly not paying bills for work done at his ranch. And Lipson generated still more headlines in July when he was fined a record $210,000 by the state for opening a high-end guest resort at his ranch without proper licenses for water.

These public relations problems pale, however, in comparison with the populist rage that Lipson ignited with his maneuvers to corner the market on "The Last Best Place."

The phrase was coined by William Kittredge, a well-known western writer, as the title for an anthology of stories, poems and memoirs about Montana that was published at public expense to celebrate the state's centennial. Kittredge co-edited the book, along with his longtime companion, writer Annick Smith.

In an interview, they recalled being "in a tizzy" at an editorial meeting in 1987. They could not come up with a title for the book. Then Kittredge had an epiphany, which may or may not have been helped by the gin-and-tonic he was drinking at the time.

He melded a line from a Richard Hugo poem about "the last good kiss" with Abraham Lincoln's definition of the United States as "the last best hope of mankind."

As a book title, "The Last Best Place" helped transform a 1,158-page commemorative tome into what has become an essential volume on the West, one that continues to sell in bookstores across the region.

More importantly, the phrase continues to resonate with Montanans, capturing their tormenting love for this vast but thinly populated state, a place where hardship goes hand in glove with happiness and long bouts of bad weather are the price of living on a wondrous landscape.

"People are proud of themselves for living here," Kittredge said. " 'The Last Best Place' captures that." Outrage over Lipson's attempt to own the phrase has echoed east to Washington. Montana's lone House member, Rep. Dennis Rehberg (R), is putting together a petition from angry state residents to be presented to the trademark office.

"This has definitely touched a nerve," said Erik Iverson, Rehberg's chief of staff.

The nerve Lipson touched is directly connected to the mythology that Montanans carry around in their hearts, Smith said.

"This guy has managed to hit us in the story of who we are," she said. "Being a Montanan is all about subscribing to a shared myth. People here feel like they have an ownership claim to 'The Last Best Place,' and now this guy is taking it away."

Influx of affluent outsiders
While Lipson takes a high-profile, high-decibel pasting for messing with "The Last Best Place," there are a number of other myths about Montana and the entire Rocky Mountain West that are being quietly undermined by a large and growing invasion of affluent outsiders.

Historically, mining, timber, railroad, ranching and energy extraction dominated this region. Now it is now dominated by the spending of retirees, said Peter Morton, senior resource economist in the Denver office of the Wilderness Society.

He points to 2003 figures from U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, which show that retirement and investment income accounted for 35 percent of total personal income in Montana and 28 percent across the Rocky Mountain region.

"If it was an industry, retirees and folks moving here for quality of life would be the number one industry in these states," Morton said.

When he bought his ranch here eight years ago, Lipson, now 67, had no intention of retiring. He said he and his wife, Nadine, wanted solitude -- and quick access to an airport. Lipson said he spends a third of his time in Las Vegas (where he maintains his legal residence), a third on the road and a third here on the ranch.

Lipson said he had hoped that profits from raising Black Angus breeding bulls would pay for upkeep on the ranch. But that did not work out, so he and his wife decided to open a small but exclusive guest operation on the ranch.

Meeting with governor
At the same time, Lipson's attorneys are trying to increase the ranch's revenue stream by securing eight trademarks for "The Last Best Place," and Lipson himself is attempting to do public relations damage control.

To that end, he said he promised Montana's governor in a meeting last month that his trademarks would never interfere with any state use of the phrase -- but he reserved the right to challenge use of the phrase by commercial competitors.

Schweitzer has a different recollection of the meeting: "I don't know if it was a promise, but when he walked out of here, he agreed he had no intention of having sole right to using 'Last Best Place.' "

Lipson also said that the news media, the politicians and the public in Montana have ignored an important fact: His companies are not the first or even the second corporate entities to trademark "The Last Best Place."

Lipson said he bought two such trademarks for a clothing catalogue and a line of jewelry from a company in California, which had bought them from a woman in Ohio.

A trademark lawyer hired by the state of Montana, Robert Griffin, said that trademark records do show that Lipson apparently purchased those trademarks. Griffin said, though, that Lipson is now reaching wildly beyond those two narrow categories.

"It is one thing to call yourself the Last Best Place Catalogue; it is quite another to try to wrap up the term for anything in Montana, from real estate to travel service," Griffin said.

The governor is more blunt.

"I don't think anybody has a right to 'The Last Best Place,' " Schweitzer said. "That's a right that belongs to the people of Montana. What's next? Will someone try to acquire sole rights to the Missouri River?"