The wilds of Northwest Montana call to all types of people, from those living in big cities across the country to those living on the eastern flatlands across the state.
Big nature, especially dramatic in the jagged peaks and pure valleys of Glacier National Park, is a big driver of the local economy. Whitefish hosted the state’s first-ever Business of Outdoor Recreation Summit in December last year, and the Outdoor Industry Association reported that outdoor recreation generates more than $7 billion per year in consumer spending in Montana.
For some, such as the owners of Glacier Raft Company, the Belton Chalet, and Swan Mountain Outfitters, that love of this place became a desire to stay and work so they could play here, and now, years after they’ve built on that opportunity, it’s their children’s turn.
The last few years have seen the changing of the guard in these outdoor recreation businesses, a transition of ownership from parents to the children raised in those environments. For the children, who are now adults, the shift comes with the knowledge that while they may now be at the helms of their respective family businesses, they are not alone in their journeys.
“It’s a small, tightknit community up here,” said Cassie Baldelli of Glacier Raft Company. “We all kind of know each other and know each other’s parents.”
Baldelli and her husband Jeff Baldelli became owners in the rafting company in 2012; her parents, Darwon and Terri Stoneman, were some of the business’ founders in 1976, and estimate the raft company has taken at least 500,000 people down the river in the last four decades.
She said it’s not been lost on her that the older guard of the outdoor industry is changing out with the new guard, and that it’s a welcome sight to see so many businesses staying within families.
“It’s great to see so many of them staying in the family,” Baldelli said. “You still have the ability to go back and ask the questions to the people who know the answers, and you still have the guidance of people who have done it before.”
Aubrie Lorona and her husband Erik Lorona are part of the recent change in ownership at Swan Mountain Outfitters, the only outfitter with a license to run trail rides in Glacier Park. Her parents, Pat and Joanne Tabor, started SMO almost 15 years ago, and the Loronas joined the endeavor three years in. Pat Tabor Jr. and his wife Megan Tabor are also involved, running the Swan division of the business while the Loronas run the northern operations.
As her parents shift out of the business, Lorona finds herself relying on their past experience but also the support from other newly minted business owners in Bad Rock Canyon who happen to know just what she’s going through.
“As a younger business owner coming in, to be able to have a peer group that you can run things by and commiserate with and brainstorm is incredible,” she said. “We’re big believers that a rising tide lifts all ships; there’s plenty of pie to go around. There isn’t a whole lot of concern about competition, even among direct competitors.”
The business community in Bad Rock Canyon is already a supportive one for this reason, Lorona said. With so many people flooding into the valley and the canyon over the summer — Glacier Park saw more than 3 million visitors in 2018 — there is enough business for everyone in those months. SMO took out 15,000 trail rides, she said, but that’s a small fraction of the tourist pool.
The businesses work together to advance shoulder season opportunities as well, Lorona said.
Swan Mountain Outfitters would likely have had a much tougher time getting a snowmobile permit for the winter months had the business community not rallied for them, Lorona said as an example.
“Community in general is something we’re really blessed with in the Flathead Valley,” she said.
As some of the most recent new owners to join this group, Andrew and Ali Still-Baxter at the historic Belton Chalet in West Glacier came back to Montana after they’d been out in the corporate world to take over the family business from his parents, Cas Still and Andy Baxter.
Still-Baxter said they both realized the unique magic of the Belton and the opportunity to live and work at Glacier Park’s western front door. They’ve been pleasantly surprised by the camaraderie of the other tourism-based businesses.
“It’s such an interesting little climate and ecosystem,” Still-Baxter said. “It is so small that we have to really rely on each other. All the relationships are symbiotic. We all know we’re in it together and fighting for the well-being of the area together.”