Economist Maps Out Valley’s Alternative Futures

By Beacon Staff

Tony Prato stops short of predicting what Flathead County will look like in the next 17 years, “This study isn’t meant to be the crystal ball.” But, he is eager to get county officials and citizens thinking about the effects of economic growth and land use policy.

Prato and a team of seven others spent the past four years calculating different options for land use policy and growth rates in the county. The result: a landscape modeling system that simulates nine alternative futures and their effects on land availability and wildlife.

When Prato presented the first part of the study – wildlife impacts won’t be completed until next year – at a public forum, he was surprised to be met with some resistance. “Many people come with the perception that something is ‘pro-environment’ or ‘pro-development.’ There’s this idea that the two are mutually exclusive. We don’t put one of those labels on this project for a reason; it’s research, not a political stance.”

Prato’s study is available online at http://cares.missouri.edu/montana/. A Powerpoint presentation explains the general points of the study and the simulator allows users to explore different “alternative futures” by using different growth rates and land use policies.

Prato, who lives with his wife in a home near McGregor Lake part time, said when he received funding for a growth and environmental study, he knew where to take it: the same place where others like him will continue to flood. “It’s an important issue here, in a place where the environment is what’s attractive to newcomers. How do you have growth without destroying the goose that laid the golden egg?”

See our related feature article: The Future of the Flathead.