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Know the West

Big Sky swipe


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 it--www.visitmt.com.  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 (hcn.org). He writes in Jackson, Wyoming.