Glacier National Park: Our Ticket to the Third World?

By Beacon Staff

In this centennial year of Glacier National Park, it’s been a busy time for the Crown of the Continent, hasn’t it?

The excitement started with British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell’s declaration that B.C. was banning minerals production in the Canadian part of the North Fork Flathead. Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus responded by introducing federal legislation that imposes a mining ban not only in the North Fork, but for good measure the Middle Fork Flathead and clear across the mountains in the Upper Whitefish/Haskill drainages. That bill was zipped out of committee in late June and is expected to be voted upon by the full Senate after summer recess.

Then, the United Nations crew released their report on whether this “World Heritage property” was “In Danger.” The UN honchos decided it wasn’t, but did declare mining and energy potential a “serious threat.” Conoco Phillips and other petroleum companies read the handwriting on the wall, and have given up about 250,000 acres of suspended oil and gas leases in the North Fork.

Handsprings and cartwheels, right?

Well, I’d like to remind everyone that “saving” Glacier Park from “threats” has implications for Northwest Montana’s economic prospects.

Yeah, we’re “saving” a world-class ecosystem … but as one little example, the Canadians have been mining coal and harvesting trees in the Crowsnest/Elk River valleys for over a century. For some strange reason, the Elk River below Fernie that drains into Lake Koocanusa is a significant bull trout fishery.

Never mind that the modest-yet-solid brick front rows of downtown Fernie, and Kalispell for that matter, weren’t built by a tourist economy – but by a diversified economy that included smelting aluminum, the railroad, forestry, high-tech, farming, construction, and providing services and health care to all those workers. Each, alongside tourism, played important parts of the whole.

What happens if Glacier is “buffered” from resource production and tourism is the only option left? In the wake of southern Nevada’s epic bubble bust, Las Vegas Review Journal columnist Glenn Cook wrote “Nevada has a tourist-driven economy. Jobs won’t be created in large numbers here until there’s job creation in other states. When larger numbers of Americans have jobs that aren’t at risk of disappearing overnight, and once they have some disposable income to spend, they’ll become tourists again.”

Where might that disposable income originate? Well, there has been much fanfare about a poll by Mark Mellman for the Alliance for American Manufacturing (AAM): 86 percent of Americans want to see American manufacturing revitalized. Thirty-seven percent of respondents felt manufacturing was “most important to the overall strength of the American economy.”

The poll is stuffed with anti-China slant, hardly a surprise given Mellman is a Democratic pollster, whose company promises to “help clients develop effective communication strategies that lead people to [among other things] vote as we would like.” AAM is a United Steelworkers project … the steel industry (and union) has been especially pounded, not just by Chinese competition, but lousy domestic policies, too. And yep, a Democrat Rust Belt congressman plans to introduce the National Manufacturing Strategy Act after Congress’s summer recess.

It’s all election flim-flam, of course. If Montana’s senators were serious, they’d be keeping Montana natural resources available for potential manufacturing use by Montana firms.

Instead, they’re betting Northwest Montana’s future on tourism. Proponents will say not to worry. Future tourism to the Crown of the Continent will be a kinder, gentler form: “Geotourism.”

Led by National Geographic, “geotourism” attempts to correct the failings of “ecotourism” in Third World countries. Geotravelers “have fun while doing good.” An entire series of “best practices” and a “charter” have been developed. My favorite is the “respects local culture and tradition” protocol: “Foreign visitors learn local etiquette, including at least a few courtesy words in the local language.” In return, “Residents learn how to deal with foreign expectations that may differ from their own.”

That might be fine if Northwest Montana was in the Third World. But we aren’t. We still speak English, and while words like “employment,” “diversification,” and “stability” might seem foreign to a “geotraveler,” they remain more than courtesy words in our local language.

For now.