The future of small-town Montana rides on public lands

From Dupuyer to Columbia Falls, a look at the growing recreation economy.

 

This story is part of The Montana Gap project, produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network.

The winds of Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front buffet the empty Dupuyer Elementary School. At one time the grasslands around it teemed with family-run ranches and Dupuyer, Montana, was the heart of its region. In 1966 there were 63 students. In 2015, only one remained, with a lone teacher to instruct him. It shocked no one when the school shuttered last year.

Welcome to Dupuyer. Population 86.

John Hayne, a jovial man with thickly calloused hands, once attended Dupuyer Elementary and is now a member of the school board. He says they’re still maintaining the building. “Maybe it’s futile,” he says with a quiet chuckle. “But we’re hoping some day it will change.”

Like her brother John Hayne, Ali Newkirk grew up in Dupuyer. Unlike her brother, who stayed and worked as a sheep rancher, Newkirk left after high school for Los Angeles. She returned in 2005, a Californian husband in tow, and bought a defunct storefront in downtown with a simple goal: “I came back to save Dupuyer,” she says.

Today, her store, the Dupuyer Cache, serves as a community hub. Tibetan prayer flags and bear-spray-canister wind chimes lend it a free-spirited charm. Hayne’s wife sells yarn from her family’s sheep there, alongside artisan crafts, hand-knitted scarves, and books by local authors, including the famed Ivan Doig.

Highway 89 serves as town’s main street. It links Yellowstone to Glacier, delivering much of the Cache’s summer business in the form of passing tourists. The nearby 2.5 million-acre Bob Marshall Wilderness is a magnet for hikers, hunters, equestrians and other adventurous souls who stop to visit the Cache and Buffalo Joe’s restaurant and motel next door.

Dupuyer’s story is a familiar one in Montana and the American West, where rural communities are drying up like so many ghost towns. After gold rushes and logging glory days, the West now faces an increasingly urban and technology focused future. That shift promises to change the character of the rural economies that once fueled the region. Some towns, like Dupuyer, are having to find ever-shifting toeholds. Others are finding ways to build on the new economics of the West.

To see how the state’s communities are adapting, I explored three: Dupuyer, Whitefish, and Columbia Falls, three towns facing different challenges but, like most Montana communities, with one unifying characteristic: the rugged beauty of their backyards. Their present is a mixed bag — and their future likely hinges on their ability to both protect and take advantage of those landscapes. Because if one thing is coming into focus, it’s that public lands are Montana’s new economic engine.

A canal on the Lower Yellowstone Reclamation Project, pictured in 1919.

Follow Highway 89 north through the prairie, turn left along the skirts of Glacier National Park’s peaks and you’ll emerge into the Flathead Valley. Its forested mountains supported a logging economy, before automation and cheap imports eroded most of those jobs.

If the towns here had clung to the resource extraction jobs they were founded on, they might be closing their schools, too. Instead, Flathead County is one of the fastest-growing counties in the state and Whitefish, the regional leader in environmental conservation and outdoor recreation, is the valley’s showpiece town. Its picturesque downtown is lined with eateries, galleries, and boutiques, the ski runs of Whitefish Mountain Resort rising in the background. When urbanites imagine a mountain town, this is what they picture.

Reed Gregerson started coming to northwest Montana from southern California in the 1980s to fly fish with his father. Eager to escape the crowded West Coast and be closer to the wild landscapes he loved, Gregerson took a job with the now-defunct computer retailer Egghead in Kalispell. Today he runs Zane Ray, a company that builds websites for internet retailers and often tops out lists of best places to work. It has worked with Patagonia, Orvis and Filson. Today its Whitefish office employs 24 people. “Montana is a good place to run a business and have employees that are happy,” he says. “We’ve got a position open right now for a software engineer, and I’m getting résumés from all over the country.”

The town has spent years enhancing the natural amenities that make it easier for Gregerson to hire top-notch talent: The Whitefish Trail is a 42-mile network of dirt trails that will soon connect town to the local ski resort, circumnavigate Whitefish Lake and loop through scenic Haskill Basin. The Whitefish River in town was recently cleaned of thousands of cubic yards of pollution from railway fueling stations, and the river corridor was restored. The town successfully petitioned the state to only allow non-motorized travel, creating a paddling playground within city limits.

Now, Whitefish mayor John Muhlfeld, who also runs a river restoration company, says, “You see dozens of paddleboards and fisherman on the river every summer day.”

But Whitefish’s success has a downside — most people can’t afford to live here. Property values have increased by 30 percent since 2005, with a current average home price of $500,000. Gated developments that blight the hills west of town do little to increase the sense of community. Unchecked development to the south threatens to conjoin with Kalispell, 12 miles away, creating a Montana-style megalopolis.

“Is that going to give us the most value in the long run?” Gregerson says about his concerns over the area’s rampant growth. “Or could more planning and consolidating development give us more long-term value?”

Ten miles east of Whitefish, at the mouth of the Bad Rock Canyon, is Columbia Falls, the rough-hewn, blue-collar alternative to Whitefish’s ski-town swank. For decades, a lumber mill and aluminum plant were its largest employers. If downtown Whitefish was a traffic jam in summer, Columbia Falls was a place tourists just passed through.

The close-knit locals didn’t seem to mind — until their economy collapsed.

In 2015, the 1,000-job aluminum plant shut down operations permanently. “It’s a very sad day,” Columbia Falls Chamber of Commerce Director Carol Pike told the Daily Interlake. “They were such a good employer and partner in the community.”

Then the 70-year-old Plum Creek lumber mill closed in 2016.

“I think this whole thing will be a downfall from everybody to daycares to hair salons to everything — it’s gonna have a downfall for years to come,” a Columbia Falls woman told Montana Public Radio at the time, summing up the sentiment of many locals.

That could have been the start of a long decline, like Dupuyer’s. But today Columbia Falls is growing. Since 2010, the city has added 513 people, a growth rate nearly as high as Whitefish’s. Some of this is spillover from pricey Whitefish. But more, it’s because Columbia Falls has something its residents are starting to realize is a resource that could support its economy for decades to come — vast swaths of public land.

In Flathead County, home to Whitefish and Columbia Falls, 73 percent of the land is held by the federal government. In Pondera County, home to Dupuyer, just 10 percent of the land is held by the federal government. Since 1970, rural counties in the American West with more public land have two to four times the growth in income and employment as counties with less public land, according to a recent study from Bozeman-based Headwaters Economics. Counties with at least 30 percent public land showed more than four times the job growth as counties with none.

And Columbia Falls is learning to capitalize on that. A 16-mile bike path is in the works to connect town to the park entrance at West Glacier. The town even changed their slogan from “Industrial Hub of the Flathead Valley” to “Gateway to Glacier.” And its long-neglected downtown is in the midst of a building boom, with new, modern apartment buildings and family-owned businesses — bike shops, pizza joints and physical therapy clinics.

Ski guide Greg Fortin embodies Columbia Falls’ emerging new character. An upstate New Yorker by birth, he moved to Whitefish in 2000 from Salt Lake City, he says, “to escape the hullabaloo.” Four years later, a young family in tow, he moved to the more affordable Columbia Falls. He acquired a guiding permit for Glacier National Park and started Glacier Adventure Guides. In the winter, he leads skiers into the wilds of the park and neighboring Flathead National Forest and, in the summer, leads hiking, climbing, and driving tours. “Every year we’re getting bigger and bigger,” he says.

Fortin currently employs one person in his office and eight others as on-demand guides. That’s representative of the labor market a shift to recreation entails: Guides are essentially freelancers hired per job,with no guarantee of year-round employment or health insurance. For the entrepreneurs looking to start their own companies — guides, lodge owners, restaurateurs, outfitters — the financial and lifestyle payoff of recreation-based business is rewarding. A 50-year-old, out-of-work logger may not become a ski guide or software engineer, but there is opportunity for those with the right skills. And ski towns need builders and plumbers, mechanics and movers, dentists and doctors, just like towns of the past.

But the rapid change in economic engines also raises hard dilemmas for a place like Columbia Falls: lower-level jobs in recreation and tourism often fail to provide the salaries and benefits of the logging and industrial jobs of yore. And property values are rising—the median home price increased to $265,000 in 2017, a surprising 24 percent jump from 2016.

And over it all still hangs the question: What kind of town does Columbia Falls want to become? Can it navigate a middle path between just hanging on, like Dupuyer, and the problematic hyper-growth of Whitefish? How can it get ahead of growth, so locals have a say in how it happens? And how does it, like the generations before, carve a viable, family-supporting economy from the forests and mountains surrounding it?

Aaron Teasdale is an award-winning writer and photographer in Missoula, Montana. 

Note: This story has been updated with a corrected caption.