May is usually the month when locals in our neck the woods go into hibernation. Traffic can pick up, causing commutes to be delayed by as much as 10 minutes. The dramatic increase in tourists and snowbirds means that restaurants are full in May, and there is no wait for service. While Montana was largely open in the heat of the coronavirus epidemic, other states were closed, creating a demand for tourism and travel. The cost of visiting our valley has risen dramatically, effectively excluding low- and middle-income campers who want to visit the Crown of the Continent. Given the $400 per-night hotel room rates, we know that our visitors will not be those just barely making it in this economy. Many fear that the wealthy will only visit and maintain the out-of control housing prices. Many young families in our valley are waiting for the moment to buy their first home. In general, housing prices fall when interest rates rise. Our valley has become a melting pot of people from all walks of life, and many are forced to leave. Many of us have family members or friends who left the Flathead. These refugees were looking for a more affordable place to live because they couldn’t wait for things back to normal here. The valley’s beautiful scenery is stunning, but the heart of the community is the people who have lived here for generations and help one another in times when they are most needed.
Preservation of the environment also means preserving the opportunities for locals and their families to live and grow here. Add to the list chronic environmental concerns like drought, wildfire and public land accessibility, the loss of locals, lifers, and others. If we lose the history of the valley and the local innovation that has been used for generations in tackling our most challenging community issues, then our ability to address environmental concerns will diminish. Even if service employees could be found to ship here we cannot afford the extensive and costly learning curve that locals have experienced by growing up here. Montana’s wildfires can be quite different from other states. Unpredictable weather patterns can make it difficult to manage and restore our farm fields and livestock. Montana loggers are interested in logging forests. However, they also have a responsibility to preserve wildlife habitat so that our children can enjoy Montana’s fishing and hunting heritage. The exodus of locals and lifers is as devastating as a forest blaze. It will take many generations to rebuild what has been lost, and the environment will be forever altered.
Tammi Fisher is an attorney who was once mayor of Kalispell. She also hosts the Montana Values Podcast.