You may think you know your way around Northwest Montana so well that a map is unnecessary. But a new “Geotourism Mapguide” published by National Geographic is almost certain to point out some features and history of this region that will be new to both local historians and tourists visiting for the first time.
The new mapguide spotlights the “Crown of the Continent” region surrounding Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, including areas in Montana, British Columbia and Alberta. The product of almost two years of research, the map is at once a guide to tourist destinations in the area, as well as a primer in natural and cultural history – pointing out everything from the Bigfork Whitewater Festival to the sacred places of First Nation tribes in Alberta to significant forestry and mining sites.
Steve Thompson, of the National Parks Conservation Association’s Glacier Branch was coordinator for the “Crown of the Continent” project’s community-based mapping process. He intends the mapguide as a way to help expand the tourism economy in the region, but to do so in a way that is respectful and beneficial to traditional economies, culture and wildlife. Thompson received 700 nominations for places to feature in the mapguide from groups including area chambers of commerce, the U.S. Forest Service and tribal elders.
“We’ve seen all over the world, when places get discovered, they lose their character,” Thompson said. “There’s no stopping it; people are coming here. How do you manage that in such a way that you don’t destroy the place? Can there be a different model?”
Hopefully, that model will be through “geotourism,” a kind of tourism focused on the geographical heritage of a place, and dedicated to enhancing the environment, culture and heritage of its residents. “We really want to create an awareness and appreciation of what a globally significant place this is,” Thompson added.
The Crown of the Continent is the fourth area in the world covered in a mapguide, according to Jim Dion, associate director of the Center for Sustainable Development, part of the National Geographic Society. Like the other mapguides, Dion was attracted to his area because of how it’s mountain ranges, wildlife and cultures span the artificial borders created by nations.
“A lot of times people in a region have more in common with themselves than the borders of whatever jurisdiction in which they live,” Dion said. “This is a profile that emerges from the people, kind of dressed up by National Geographic.”
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