Big Sky swipe

  • Daniel Person


Montana has been lauded this year for its tourism campaign, which consists largely of plastering photos, buffalo-sized and beautiful, on things that are decidedly not beautiful: buses in New York City, trains in Chicago.

This spring, the American Marketing Association awarded the Bozeman, Mont., company that developed the campaign an "Effie" - "Effie" being short for effective. Even higher praise came in July, when a New York Times story used the ad campaign as a counterpoint to Washington state's decision to de-fund its tourism department. As Montana pushes hard with its tourism campaign and Washington pulls out, the article suggested, the Big Sky Country is in prime position to take over more of the Northwest tourism market.

"Even I want to go to Montana," one Washington tourism official bemoaned to the Times reporter.

Somehow lost or unnoticed in all the excitement is an interesting fact: Some of those stunning photographs used to lure the smog-weary to Montana aren't of Montana at all. Rather, they are decidedly pictures of Wyoming.

This struck me as I rode an "L" commuter train in Chicago and gazed at the unearthly teals and burnt oranges of a Yellowstone thermal spring and read the only text accompanying  Montana can lay claim to a few strips of Yellowstone National Park, but to visit that steaming pool you'd have to mosey into the Cowboy State.

Granted, with three entrances to Yellowstone, Montana has always taken a healthy portion of the tourism dollars generated by the nation's first national park. Last July, for example, park figures show just over 200,000 people visited Yellowstone via Montana, compared to about 119,000 from Wyoming.

To be fair, other ads posted around the Windy City called Montana the gateway to Yellowstone. Still, other advertisements, like the one on the commuter train, weren't so explanatory, and either way it's hard to imagine other states getting away with such liberal interpretations of its borders.

Imagine a picture of the Grand Canyon with the words "Visit Nevada" slapped across the top, perhaps with a disclaimer that the national park is "Just a mule ride away!" Or, vice versa, a picture of Las Vegas to lure folks to Arizona. I doubt New Yorkers would stand for New Jersey using pictures of the Statue of Liberty for the latest Garden State tourism campaign.

And, you have to feel for Wyoming. By housing the vast majority of that vast park, it was handed millions of acres of nontaxable land that nary a cow or oil rig can touch. Not only that, it's proven to be a breeding ground for the average Wyoming politician's own Axis of Evil: wolves, grizzly bears and brucellosis.

And now, as Montana prepares to allow the hunting of 220 wolves while Wyoming is forced to keep its trigger-lock on until 2012, Montana claims the park for its own -- and gets national praise for doing it. Asked to comment on whether the Montana Tourism Office putting up pictures of Wyoming up around the country stuck in his craw, one Wyoming tourism official demurred.

After all, they are probably used to it. Even Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer has fudged Montana's borders -- while talking to the leader of the free world, no less. When President Barack Obama visited Belgrade, Mont., in 2009, before traveling with his family to Yellowstone, Gov. Brian Schweitzer told Obama to hold his daughters tight when Old Faithful erupted.

"Hold them close because you will never forget the feeling that you have when their eyes get as big as saucers seeing the majesty of God at work in Big Sky Country," the governor told the president.

Last I checked, unless you were talking college football, Big Sky Country was code for Montana. This has the makings for a border war. But it's not like Wyoming couldn't wrangle its own Effie. Unlike Washington, it still has a tourism budget. It also has a lot to brag about: Along with Yellowstone, it has the beautiful Grand Teton National Park to market, the stunning Devil's Tower and swank Jackson Hole.

And if any lesson can be learned from Montana's ad campaign, it's that there is no harm in expanding horizons. After all, Newcastle, Wyo., is about a dozen miles away from the Black Hills National Forest and about an hour's drive from most of the attractions therein.

Come to Wyoming. Experience Mount Rushmore.

Daniel Person is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He writes in Jackson, Wyoming.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

G. Will Ackers
G. Will Ackers
Sep 16, 2011 10:50 AM
Yellowstone is a geographic anomaly. It is more similar to the Gulf of Mexico or Lake Michigan than to other National Parks such as Glacier. Sure, it is mostly "in" Wyoming, but for all intents and purposes it is a place unto itself, bordered by 3 states. The writer notes that more people enjoy the park via Montana than any other state, but fails to understand that this is the beginning and end of the story. If Montana is the primary access point, then Yellowstone is as much Montana's asset as it is Wyoming's.

Florida has 770 miles of Gulf Coast shoreline (and therefore 'owns' more of the Gulf than any other state if both states use the 12-mile rule) vs. Texas' 367, but nobody would write an article condemning Galveston or South Padre Island for advertising Gulf Coast access to potential tourists.

It's a bit different, but not much. Both the Gulf and Yellowstone are non-state (federal or international) areas from which adjacent states are able to reap economic rewards.

In the end, "Come to Montana, see Yellowstone" is just as valid as "Come to Wisconsin, see Lake Michigan". And Kudos to Montana for paying enough attention to what their tourists are doing to leverage that into a very effective advertising campaign.
Jeff Kamps
Jeff Kamps Subscriber
Sep 17, 2011 05:27 PM
Not to be too nit-picky but you mention that.. "Last July... just over 200,000 people visited Yellowstone via Montana, compared to about 119,000 from Wyoming". So where do the other 3-million-or-so visitors enter from? I would imagine that in a park that receives over 3 million visitors per year, that a lot more than 300,000 came in July, if I'm reading the article correctly. And PLEASE stop with the "Jackson Hole" stuff, the town is named Jackson. There is no town named Jackson Hole. For an article that tries to point out Montana's slight geographic deception in its advertisement, you could at least not use the fictional (although popular) name of a Wyoming town.