Gateways to Glacier


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About this Report | Introduction | Download the Report

Around the turn of the 19th century, proposals to create Glacier National Park met with considerable resistance in the Flathead Valley. Opposition was deep and broad, including several Flathead County newspapers that cited lost opportunities for mining, logging, new railroad routes, oil exploration, hunting, and homesteading.

   "There may be some local people who favor the park plan," wrote the Kalispell Daily Inter Lake in 1907, "but we know of only two." The Inter Lake and other local papers voiced the concerns of many Flathead residents who feared that establishing the park would take the wind out of the area's economic sails.

Nearly 100 years later, it is clear that these fears were unfounded. In an October 2002 editorial, the Daily Inter Lake called Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park "our region's biggest economic engine." As in the past, the editorial staff voiced the convictions of residents, many of whom believe that the valley's economic vitality depends in large measure upon its spectacular natural surroundings.

In a region replete with extensive wilderness areas, national forests, lakes, streams, and mountains, Glacier National Park holds a special place. It is a landscape of exceptional beauty, known around the world and easily accessible by car, foot, and horseback. Carol Edgar, executive director of the Flathead Convention and Visitor Bureau, expressed a view common among local business leaders: "You can't measure the mark Glacier Park has made on this community. The whole economy is tied to the park."

Across the United States, there is growing recognition of the link between attractive public lands such as national parks, and the well-being of the communities that provide access to them. These "gateway communities" generally provide food, lodging, and other services for visitors. But the parks are more than simple magnets for visitors. Many gateway communities, including Flathead County, have thriving, diverse economies that are not primarily dependent upon tourism and recreation.

Yet the natural appeal of these areas is at the heart of their economic success.

In 2002, NPCA—through its Northern Rockies regional offices located in Whitefish and Helena—commissioned three studies (see About This Report). These studies explore the roots of economic vitality in Flathead County, the primary gateway to Glacier. From three different angles, the studies help to illuminate important relationships among economic vitality, the natural environment, and the quality of life that is valued by both residents and visitors.

These studies overwhelmingly support the assertion that the Flathead Valley's chief economic assets are its friendly communities and the natural environment, which provides recreational opportunities, a wide-open feel, clean water, wildlife, and scenic beauty. Further, the studies support the conclusion that degrading those qualities will, in the long run, slow economic progress and dampen vitality in the Flathead. They point the way toward protecting these valuable assets for the future.

This report synthesizes findings of these three studies into a wide-ranging discussion of economic transition that will help residents and leaders navigate fast-paced changes in the emerging Flathead economy.

Download the full report as a PDF file, which can be opened with Adobe Acrobat Reader.

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