Opinion

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Uncommon Ground

Rural Flathead

Living in rural Montana is a choice; the quality of life is great

The robins were singing their telltale tune outside the bedroom window. It was time to get up. The clock read 6 a.m.

To the east the sunrise was beet red. The lawn was packed with deer mowing the green dandelions. The thermometer indicated below 20 degrees.

Living in rural Montana is a choice. The quality of life is great.

We have access to millions of acres of public lands steering our economy. The water is clean and the people are friendly. The air is crisp and breathable, unless it’s forest fire season.

The Flathead is a great community. The rural county and tri-cities of Columbia Falls, Kalispell and Whitefish offer economic opportunities like much of the nation.

And like nationwide, wages remain stagnant. That’s slowly changing.

The Flathead enjoys another boom cycle with construction happening everywhere. People are moving into the Flathead to enjoy rural life.

Census numbers say that our valley grew by 15 percent over the past decade, now there are 100,000 of us. Over that timeframe the under 25-aged youngsters moving here increased the permanent population by about 5 percent, embodying 29,000 people.

The over 55 year-olds outpaced the youths 10-fold, grew by over 55 percent to represent 35,000 people.

The working aged population, the 25- to 54-year-olds, fell in numbers by a couple percentage points. This demographic remains the biggest segment of the people living in the valley, over 36,000 of Flathead’s hard workers.

The Flathead is a retirement and recreation economy, which requires workers and services to represent the quality of life that so many of us have come to expect from the valley. Things need fixing and people have to eat.

One look at my springtime hands tells you I work outdoors. They’re cracked and dry from long days with hands in the earth. Hundreds of dirt-filed cracks make me look like an old man. Farmers spend long days outdoors, in all sorts of weather, pushing tools like shovels, forks, tractors and cultivators.

Montanans are used to hard work. It’s who we are, have always been. Work represents us well. We value it and do it more than most activities of life.

Many of us work with wood. Some cut trees, while others make lumber. The construction business is again booming with homes being built across the valley. The trade employs a lot of people from architects, builders, drywallers, plumbers, masons, sawyers, as well as realtors and bankers that sell and resell homes.

The service industry is booming in the Flathead. Someone needs to feed all the generous retired people enjoying the rural lifestyle, as well as the truckloads of tourist that are flying, driving and arriving by train. With millions of annual tourists, it’s a sector of the economy that is very active.

The cooks, waitresses, baristas, bartenders, hair stylist, massage therapist, and downtown businesses are working hard during the big months of summer.

Many work in new offices and spaces. We use computers, fast internet, and other softer tools of trade.

Some work harder than others and some people are fortunately wealthier. Yet nearly everyone that I’ve encountered is kind and generous, be they workers, retirees, or youngsters.

Flathead knows hard labor. Together we build things, public amenities and private places.

We fix stuff, manage finances, educate kids, and keep others healthy. We’ve got the best healthcare providers anywhere in this rural state. And our teachers, who deserve a higher wage, are loyal stewards of our kid’s education.

Even if health care and housing costs have skyrocketed, gas prices increased, student debt soared, or export trade is hurting life is good, Montanans remain tough and independent.

We like to work hard and enjoy our recreation. Our rural hands are rough or smooth from our day’s work. Workers and capital make stuff happen.