MISSOULA – Montanans like to call their state “Big Sky Country,” or “The last best place.” Nowhere in these descriptions are there hints of crowds.
Yet Montana is set to reach a major milestone later this year when the state tops 1 million residents for the first time, according to projections by the U.S. Census.
The slowest-growing state in one of the nation’s fastest-growing regions, Montana will remain a vast and largely empty place. Don’t expect to wait in line at fly-fishing streams. And morning commutes will still average 17 minutes, enough to make big city dwellers cry.
Even so, some Montanans are treating the advancing milestone with a sense of dread.
“That’s the question I get most commonly: Are we at a million?” said Mary Craigle, Census director for the state. When she says no, people are pleased. “They don’t want more neighbors.”
The 2010 Census counted 994,416 Montanans, and the millionth Montanan is projected to appear sometime in November or December, Craigle said. Population growth is estimated through births, deaths, and people moving in and out of the state, she said.
If the Census results are accurate, the millionth Montanan will likely show up in a community near Yellowstone or Glacier national parks, the college towns of Missoula or Bozeman, or the city of Billings. That’s where growth is concentrated. Most of the other communities were either static or lost population in the decade.
A million residents may not seem all that impressive. It means the entire state has just a few more people than the Tucson, Ariz., metro area, and a few less than Rochester, N.Y.
But Montanans know it is a psychological milestone, a sort of closing of the frontier. The next thing you know the place will be even more overrun with Starbucks and Walmarts.
“I tend to find as a Montanan I like having under a million people,” said Bob Clark, who works for the Sierra Club environmental group in Missoula. “Once over a million, we get put into a different ballpark with other states.”
“People are envious of our small population,” Clark said. “They may not be quite as envious.”
There are some positives to growth. Clark said a rising population may return to Montana its second seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Montana is the largest state to have just one House member.
Plenty of Montanans are happy their state will abandon North and South Dakota, Wyoming, Delaware, Vermont and Alaska in the league of states whose population is measured in the hundreds of thousands.
Greg Riska, the owner of three Spill the Beans Espresso shops in Kalispell, said it was about time the state topped 1 million.
“We need to get to 2 million so we can have a strong economy,” Riska said.
Jon Bennion of the Montana Chamber of Commerce said more Montanans means more local business.
“It may be likely Montana will be seen as more of a market for products, rather than a good place to produce something only to be shipped out,” Bennion said.
The 10 million tourists who visit the state each year probably won’t notice, Bennion said.
“Folks coming from outside the state are often coming from places that have several million people in a single city,” he said.
There’s no danger of Montana turning into New York anytime soon: the state has just six people for each of its 145,000 square miles, far below the national average of nearly 80. Billings, a center of oil refining, ranching and services, is the largest city with a population of 104,000, the only Montana city above 100,000 residents.
Diversity can mean whether you wear Levi or Wrangler jeans, as Montanans are 89.5 percent white, compared to a national average of 74.5 percent.
Clark said urban headaches in growing areas are inevitable, especially with traffic and air pollution. But a million people are not enough to wreck the environment of a state that trails only Alaska, California and Texas in area.
“Our public lands can easily absorb a few more people,” Clark said.
It’s been a long road to a million people. After a period of explosive growth in the late 1800s as its farms, mines and timberlands were developed, Montana settled into a fairly stable population of around 550,000 from 1920 to 1950.
The state had 799,000 residents in the 1990 Census, and that jumped to 905,316 in 2000. The state added 89,100 in the past decade, for a growth rate of just below 10 percent, lowest among the 13 western states.
The rest of the West grew much faster, averaging 13.8 percent from 2000 to 2010, second only to the South (14.3 percent). The four biggest gainers in the nation were all in the West, led by Nevada (35 percent), Arizona (24 percent), Utah (23 percent) and Montana’s neighbor, Idaho (21 percent).
It’s no secret why Montana has not added more residents, Craigle said: Lack of jobs.
“How many major airports do we have? How difficult is it to travel in a Montana winter?” Craigle said. “We have no ports, no major Canadian city right on the border,” Craigle said.
“We are surrounded by other states that are very small.”
Montana also lacks big employers. Many businesses in the state are mom and pop concerns, with few businesses topping 500 employees. There are no huge corporations employing thousands of people, and little work in the high-tech sector.
“Lots of people move here and retire here, so they are not really moving jobs here,” Craigle said.
As a result, many native Montanans tend to be lifestyle warriors who are willing to accept less income to live and play in the state, Craigle said.
Robin Quamme, a barista in the Missoula County Courthouse, is also not impressed by the looming milestone.
“To me it means nothing,” Quamme said. “We’re so big, it’s not that big a deal.”
(Spokane, Wash., correspondent Nicholas K. Geranios was raised in Montana, where he was approximately resident No. 676,000.)
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