If you spend enough time in the forest, especially in Glacier National Park, the woods become less of where you are and more of a friend, a familiar presence welcoming you back every time.
So when the folks at Swan Mountain Outfitters, the only outfitters offering horseback trail-ride services in Glacier Park, saw the smoke from the Sprague Fire fill the valley last August, they knew two things.
First and foremost, they knew the heartache that comes with a familiar forest burning up in flames, and secondly, they knew their business would have to scramble to make up for losing access to the trails to the Sperry Chalet.
Eventually, the fire would consume nearly 17,000 acres, burning down the historic chalet and causing nearly 2,000 trees to fall across trails.
“Last year we felt more acutely affected by the actual fire because we operated at the Lake McDonald corral,” Aubrie Lorona, vice president of finance and administration for SMO, said. “About 30 percent of our Lake McDonald business is the Sperry trip.”
Summer is the time when tourism-based businesses make hay while the sun shines and the visitors flow into Northwest Montana. But the extreme wildfire season in 2017 was a reminder that all these businesses are dependent on the whims of nature.
Last year was one of the worst for wildfires in Montana’s history, with more than a million acres scorched across the state. Tourism provides a major piece of the state’s economic pie — visitors spent $3 billion here in 2016 — and smoke from wildfires can put a damper on the season.
According to a survey conducted last fall by the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana, 78 percent of tourism businesses in Northwest Montana felt the effects of smoke and fire on their bottom line. Only 47 percent of tourism businesses across the state felt their business would increase in 2018.
Yet, despite the smoke and fire, visitation to the valley was strong, thanks largely to the popularity of Glacier Park. More than half of the tourism businesses in Glacier Country saw more visitors than in 2016, while 26 percent saw fewer and 22 percent saw the same. Many of the surveyed businesses also saw increased revenues in 2017 compared to 2016, with 34 percent experiencing more than 5 percent increases.
The smoke made people change plans, with 7.1 percent of travelers shortening their trips, 6.9 percent canceling additional trips, and 8.6 percent canceling their trips to Montana altogether.
The 2015 fire season was active, but 2016 was relatively quiet. Then came 2017, which in April showed no signs of being as dry as it would be in September. Businesses can take it year by year, but many have begun to think about what they would do if extreme summer fires were the trend, not an aberration.
Mike Howe, owner and outfitter at Howe’s Fishing, said the smoke concerned him because his crews were out in it all day, but it also drove up business from people who had previously planned outdoor activities such as hiking.
“It’s a double-edged sword, because we got a lot of people who wanted to go fishing because they didn’t want to go hiking in those conditions,” Howe said. “But they’re still out in the smoke, just not doing a strenuous activity.”
Smoke obscures views regardless, and there were days the crews couldn’t see the shoreline a mile away, Howe said.
“We had quite a few of those days where we gave the people every opportunity to cancel, but they wanted to do something other than sit in their hotel room,” Howe said. “I was concerned about the health and welfare of my guys being out there 12 hours a day.”
Of over 700 trips, they only had a few cancellations, he said.
Lorona with Swan Mountain Outfitters said her crews became experts at shuttling people around to their various corrals, though they had to cancel about six trips all together.
But questions about the Sperry trails still linger; the Lake McDonald corral accounts for about 25 percent of SMO’s total business, and the Sperry trails make up 30 percent of that, she said.
They still don’t know if they’ll be able to access the trails this summer, Lorona said, which will affect how the company hires its crews.
“It really affects hiring — it doubles the crew size if we’re using those trails — and we’re probably not going to know until late June,” she said.
SMO also has a contract to pack in all the supplies for the Sperry and Granite chalets, with Sperry’s requests usually larger than those for Granite.
“That represents another chunk of business that we’re not going to have,” Lorona said.
Howe said he has taken to approaching each season hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.
“Fire is a fact of life out West now, and in an area that is tourism-based like ours, you hope it doesn’t happen for many reasons,” Howe said. “We rely on Mother Nature for many of our tourism-based industries, and every year you go in wondering what’s going to happen.”