May is typically the month when the locals in our neck of the woods go into hibernation. We can see traffic pick up, delaying our commutes by up to (gasp) 10 minutes or more. We fill the restaurants in May before reservations and waits for service occur due to the drastic uptick in population from tourists and snowbirds. While Montana remained largely open during the heat of the coronavirus pandemic, other states were shut down, creating pent-up demand for travel and tourism. The cost to visit our valley has increased exponentially, effectively locking out the middle- and low-income campers from visiting the Crown of the Continent. In light of $400 per night hotel room rates, we can predict our visitors will not be those who are barely getting by in this economy. Many of us fear that if only the wealthy can visit, they will move here and sustain the out-of-control housing prices. Typically, the housing prices decrease when interest rates climb, and many young families in our valley have been waiting for this event to purchase their first homes. The advent of our valley becoming a melting pot for out-of-staters seeking what we have results in lifers being forced out. Many of us have family or friends who have left the Flathead; refugees seeking a more affordable community, because they could not financially wait any longer for things to “get back to normal” here. While the scenery of this valley is compelling, the lifeblood is the people who have lived here for generations, helping one another in times of need and creating a strong sense of community.
Preservation of our environment includes preserving the opportunities for locals to live and raise their families here. The loss of locals and lifers should be added to the list of chronic environmental concerns such as drought, wildfire, and public land access. If we lose the historical knowledge of this valley and the local ingenuity used for generations to tackle our most challenging community issues, our ability to address “traditional” environmental concerns vanishes. Even if we could find service employees to ship here, we can’t afford an expensive and extensive learning curve that locals have overcome by growing up here. Wildfire in Montana is different than almost any other state. Unpredictable weather patterns require local knowledge to properly restore and manage our farm fields and livestock. Montana loggers have a vested interest in logging our forests with a careful eye towards preserving wildlife habitat so that their kids and our kids can enjoy Montanan’s hunting and fishing heritage. The exodus of lifers and locals is no less tragic than a forest fire. It will take generations to rebuild what is lost and our environment will be forever changed.
Tammi Fisher is an attorney, former mayor of Kalispell and host of Montana Values Podcast.
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