Jeff Ament’s Next Act: Making Montana a Skateboard Oasis
BROWNING, Mont. – This isn’t Montana where the wealthy are building ski-in / ski-out mansions or renovating a trout stream on a new ranch.
Browning is the capital of the Blackfeet Nation, where the rolling, grass-covered high plains collide with a steel-gray wall of snow-capped mountains on the Rocky Mountain front, just south of the Canadian border.
It is also a new world-class skateboarding capital and an almost 13,000 square foot, $ 300,000 skate park called Thunder Park. It was funded by the Montana Pool Service – a name in reference to the big bowl in the middle of a skate park – a foundation funded and managed by Jeff Ament.
Yes, this Jeff Ament, the bassist and founder of Pearl Jam. He’s seven years old on his self-proclaimed mission to bring premium skate parks to every town and town in Montana that will have one.
Ament paid or helped pay for 27 skateparks, most of them in Montana. He also helped build three on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Three more reservations are planned in Montana and South Dakota, including one at Wounded Knee.
A clue to his skateboarding philanthropy can be found in the scary and melancholy lyrics to Pearl Jam’s music. âI have to bomb my temple that’s going to explode,â the band sang in the song âOnceâ on their multi-platinum debut album, âTenâ. “I have a sixteen caliber buried under my clothes.”
While it might be a bit of grunge rock theater, Ament weathered his own emotional storms, he said, with the help of a skateboard ramp in a remote little Montana town called Big Sandy, where he grew up. Skateboarding, he says from personal experience, is deeply therapeutic for disgruntled young people in similar places.
Montana’s sublime mountain and grassland landscapes and recent popularization on shows like “Yellowstone” mask the fact that in 2019 it had the third highest suicide rate in the country, 27 per 100,000 people – a rate even higher in bookings at 31 per 100,000..
Ament, 58, not only donates money to create these skateparks, but takes care of them. He lives in Missoula, with a swimming pool in his backyard, not far from the Montana constellation of parks that he helped build and maintain.
It takes time, something that was unexpectedly gained during the pandemic when Pearl Jam canceled much of her tour. Ament and his wife, Pandora Andre-Beatty, are essentially the entire organization, although they have a lot of volunteer help.
On a recent loop of several Ament-inspired skateparks in his custom white Sprinter van, making a trip he takes several times a year, he showed up with a broom and dustpan to sweep the bottom of Thunder Park Pool. He cleaned the walls during a graffiti cleanup in Le Havre, did more sweeping in Shelby and spoke about the vital role of the plumbers mission.
Growing up in Big Sandy, with less than 600 people, Ament said, the highlight was dinner at the nearest Dairy Queen, half an hour away. Her father was Big Sandy’s barber, drove a school bus, and raised chickens, pigs, and cows.
Rural Montana towns are often big on team sports, especially basketball and soccer, even when the towns are so small they can only field six-man football teams. Ament distinguished himself in several sports and was offered a scholarship as an All State Linebacker. But there is still a subset of young people who are not cut out for team sports and need another outlet.
Ament grew up near the Rocky Boy Reservation and knows firsthand the added difficulty of life on a reservation. Skateboarding and going to skate parks “gives kids a reason to see the rest of the state, the rest of the country and maybe the rest of the world,” he said. “There is an old school mentality that says you abandon your community if you leave and go to college elsewhere.” He shook his head.
âMy life would be very different without this park,â said JC Larson, an 18-year-old, as he held his board and watched a herd of horses gallop down a nearby road. âIt wouldn’t be good. I was not in sports and I met all these guys who skated.
Ament has no entourage and there is little noise when it stops in these parks. He’s low-key and straightforward, wearing a white t-shirt, shorts, and his Montana Pool Service hat as he hands out new wheels, hex keys, hats, stickers, and an occasional skateboard. to the dozen children who cling to it.
Only a few fans want their board or hat to be signed. A little boy from Shelby, MT, asked for autographs on his cast. The children shout “Hi Jeff” and one of them shouts “I love you Jeff”. Ament smiles and jokes, “I paid him to say that.”
The attention he gives is also inconspicuous, sometimes just listening to someone talk about their personal struggles. “I’m doing my best to try to be a worried uncle, rather than a grumpy old man,” he said, stopping, realizing the importance of his role. âI lost four very good friends to suicide.
âInstead of you against the world, it’s you against your skateboard and it gives you a place to take your aggression off,â said Kim Petersen, a longtime Ament ally, who ran a clinic with âGirls on Shred “for transgender women. and the non-binary skateboarders of the small town of Hamilton.
Boarding can also open minds, she said. “People come from all over the world to skate here and if you’re a kid you’re going to see some amazing stuff.” Not the least is gender nonconformity. âIn these cities, they have to open their eyes and accept.
Ament worked with three skate park builders – Evergreen, Dreamland and Grindline – to turn Montana into an unlikely skate destination. âWe have more world-class concrete per capita in Montana than anywhere else,â says Ament.
The skate parks take place in different ways and for each Ament puts different amounts. He could donate $ 50,000 and then match another $ 100,000. Or just pay it all out of pocket, like he did for Thunder Park.
âWe had a big year touring and we had a lot of money in founding the band and I just put all that money into the Browning skate park,â he said. “There was a crying need – it’s a big reserve and it’s super isolated.”
Evergreen, which specializes in what’s known as lunar or lunar landscape-style parks, had so much activity building skateparks here that it relocated its headquarters to the Bitterroot Valley in the southwest of the Montana. âBuilding skate parks here can be very difficult,â said Catherin Coulon, owner of Evergreen. “Some of the jobs we do in Montana are so rural that you don’t have cell service and the concrete is a two hour drive away.”
To honor Ament’s thrasher philanthropy, Blackfeet Chief Earl Old Person gave him a Blackfeet name, which translates to Holds Water. He compared Ament to the beaver, an animal the Blackfoot holds in high esteem, “because the beaver builds dams that create ponds that allow other creatures to thrive.”
And flourish that they have. âWe arrived late one night and there were 50 kids skating including 10 girls doing an outdoor loop in the park.â