How to Become an Urban Planner in Montana

Montana MapPrivate landowners’ control of public lands has become a hot button issue in Montana. Private landowners are buying land in Montana, unaware that that land has been used by Montana residents and visitors as public lands for years. Public access through private lands has created problems, sometimes leading to violence.

A study by the Center for Western Priorities found that four million acres of public lands in the Rocky Mountain West (which includes Montana, Idaho, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico) are considered to be landlocked. These lands are blocked off by private landowners who control adjacent roadways or properties. At least two million of these “landlocked” acres are in the state of Montana.

Private landowners in many areas of Montana have tied up large tracts of public recreational lands, making this public land inaccessible to the public.

The population of the Rocky Mountain West has grown faster than the rest of the U.S. since the 1960s. In the past 30 years, Montana has seen a steady increase in its population. In 1970, the state’s population was less than 700,000, while today, it stands at more than one million.

Urban planners in Montana are responsible for shaping and planning land regulations and policies so that more people can have access to the beautiful lands in this vast state. If you would like to learn how you can become an urban planner in Montana’s Big Sky Country and have a positive effect on your fellow citizens as well as the land in which you live, keep reading.

Wages for Montana Urban Planners

Data provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor indicates that the average annual median wage for urban planners in Montana in May 2019 was $60,530. According to, cities across Montana offered urban planners the following annual median salaries:

  • Billings $58,686
  • Bozeman $50,647
  • Great Falls $53,129
  • Missoula $50,647

Montana Land Use Laws and Regulations

Montana’s state law allows counties, cities and towns to create planning boards for land use regulating. Planning boards are designed to give advice to local government officials on land use planning and development within a jurisdiction. They can also develop growth policies and propose subdivision policies. Planning boards are not required to adopt growth policies, but are permitted to under this law. Growth policies in Montana provide a general direction of planning and future development for a jurisdiction. The growth policy must be consulted when planning new buildings and infrastructure. However, a growth policy cannot be the sole basis for planning or land use decisions. Under Montana law, growth policies must contain the following elements:

  • A statement of community goals/objectives and description of policies to be implemented
  • Maps and text describing the existing characteristics of the area
  • Projected trends for the life of the growth policy in land use, population, economic conditions, housing, natural resources, and local services
  • A strategy to develop, maintain and replace public infrastructure
  • An implementation strategy including a timetable for implementation of the growth policy and a list of conditions that would lead to its revision
  • A statement of the ways that governing bodies will coordinate and cooperate with other jurisdictions
  • An explanation of how the governing body will evaluate and make decisions with respect to the public interest criteria of agriculture, water user facilities, natural environment, local services, wildlife and its habitat, and public safety and health
  • Statement explaining how public hearing for proposed subdivisions are to be conducted
  • Evaluation of potential for fire/wildfire risk in the jurisdiction

Zoning in Montana

In Montana, zoning districts may be enacted by cities, towns and counties, as well as within unincorporated areas under some conditions. Zoning is not required but is authorized under state law. Zoning must be consistent with a jurisdiction’s growth policy and follow these requirements:

  • Protect against fire and other dangers
  • Promote public health, safety and welfare
  • Facilitate adequate provision of water, transportation, schools, sewerage, parks and public requirements
  • Provide adequate light and air
  • Account for effect on transportation systems
  • Support compatible urban growth
  • Build the character of the area/district
  • Conserve the value of buildings
  • Encourage the most appropriate use of land throughout the jurisdiction

Using Land Use Planning in Montana to Reduce Wildfire Risk

Montana is prone to wildfires, and this trend is expected to continue as the climate becomes warmer and drier. Urban planners are trying to help to reduce the risk of wildfires in Montana through land use planning. As of 2020, just a few counties in the state have integrated wildfire prevention into their land use planning. Wildfire risk in Montana can be mitigated through the following land use and planning measures:

  • Creating plans like neighborhood plans, Community Wildfire Protection Plans, Pre-Disaster Mitigation Plans and growth policies
  • Creating land use regulations that are wildfire-prevention friendly, like building codes, zoning ordinances and subdivision regulations
  • Producing revenue-generating strategies like impact fees and rural improvement districts
  • Through voluntary measures like outreach, incentives and education

State legislators can also allow local governments to include building codes related to fire protection and prevention within their county zoning statutes, so that fire protection does not have to be addressed through subdivision regulations.

Studying Urban Planning in Montana

Undergraduate Studies in Urban Planning in Montana

To begin your educational journey towards becoming an urban planner in Montana, you must earn an undergraduate degree. It is a good idea, when possible, to choose a program accredited by  the Planning Accreditation Board (PAB) of the American Planning Association. However, Montana and its neighboring states do not house any such programs. Consider these alternatives:

  • Bachelor of Science in Earth Sciences- Geographic Information Science/Planning Option – Montana State University
  • Bachelor of Science in Geography – Community & Environmental Planning Option- University of Montana

 Graduate Studies in Urban Planning in Montana

Again, if possible, you should select a graduate urban planning program that is accredited by the Planning Accreditation Board (PAB) of the American Planning Association. Montana and its neighboring states do not have such accredited programs, however. Alternatives include:


  • University of Montana – Master of Science in Geography – Community & Environmental Planning Option

W.A. Franke College of Forestry & Conservation

Missoula, MT 59812

Sarah J. Halvorson, Graduate Program Director



  • Montana State University – Master of Science in Geographic Information Science/Planning Option

Department of Earth Sciences

P.O. Box 173480

226 Traphagen Hall

Bozeman, MT 59717-3480

Michael Babcock, Department Head



Professional Certification for Montana Urban Planners

American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP)

Professional certification shows your colleagues and potential employers that you have the highest standards and most updated training. Pursuing this certification involves passing a test given by the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP). This exam is offered at these Prometric test centers:

  • Billings 2103 Central Ave.
  • Helena 1075 N. Rodney St.

Maintaining AICP Certification in Montana

As a certified AICP professional, you must complete 32 Certification Maintenance (CM) credits every two years. The Montana Association of Planners can help you to find appropriate conferences and events to help fulfill this requirement.

Alternate Certification Options for Montana’s Urban Planners

Other organizations also offer planning certifications, and include:

Urban Planning Careers in Montana

Planning Projects Across Montana

Planning projects currently underway in Montana include:

  • Deer Lodge: Development of community Wayfinding Plan to guide visitors to the downtown attractions
  • Great Falls: Development of a Downtown Block Revitalization Study
  • Thompson Falls: Conducting a preliminary architectural report for Black Bear Inn (historic rehabilitation)
  • Hardin: Development of a Downtown Master Plan
  • Ennis: Development of a Downtown Master Plan

Planning Internships in Montana

If your college planning program does not offer you an opportunity to pursue an internship, you can seek out your own, such as:

  • Transportation Engineering Intern – HDR Andrew Reid, Missoula
  • Montana Department of Transportation Internship – Helena, Billings, Butte, Glendive, Great Falls, Missoula
  • Yellowstone Summer Field Intern – Yellowstone National Park, Missoula
  • Conservation Intern – Montana Conservation Corps, varied locations

Public Sector Planning Jobs in Montana

Montana offers many opportunities in the federal, state, and local governmental level:

  • Planner I – Missoula County, Missoula
  • Planner II – Missoula County, Missoula
  • Planner I – City of Hamilton
  • Planning Director – Powell County, Deer Lodge
  • Planner II – City of Bozeman

Private Sector Planning Jobs in Montana

Private sector jobs in planning in Montana could include:

  • Emergency Management Planner- Tetra Tech, Helena
  • Associate Planner- Adventure Life, Missoula
  • Community Sustainability and Climate Resilience Planner- National Center for Appropriate Technologies, Butte
  • Planner- Idaho Forest Group, LLC, Saint Regis
  • Assistant Project Manager – EPC Services Company, Billings

Forecast for Montana’s Real Estate and Urban Planning Industries

In recent decades, housing prices across Montana have risen, according to the Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research. Since 2000, housing prices in five Montana counties have more than doubled, and two-thirds of Montana’s counties have seen housing prices climb by 70 percent. Because economists aren’t sure what’s driving the trend towards higher housing prices in Montana, they cannot be sure that this trend will continue.

Urban planners can help in driving the real estate market in Montana, as they shape regulations and subdivision and density requirements to encourage construction and building of new homes statewide. It is likely that there will be plenty of continued work for urban planners across the vast state of Montana for the foreseeable future.

More Urban Planning Resources in Montana