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Tourism plan emphasizes stewardship

by BERL TISKUS
Reporter | February 22, 2024 12:00 AM

Glacier Country brought its Destination Stewardship Plan for tourism to a town meeting at the Ronan Community Center on Feb. 13. With  approximately 14 people in the audience, the turnout was low but the input was high.

Racine Friede, president and CEO of Glacier Country, said the organization covers 22,000 square miles and more than 75 small communities with a population of about 380,000 people.

Lake County is primarily in the Flathead Corridor, an area including Arlee, Ravalli, St. Ignatius, Moiese, Charlo, Ronan, Polson, Pablo, Big Arm, Elmo, Dayton, Rollins, Proctor, Lakeside, Somers and Bigfork. 

According to the budget and plan for 2024, Glacier Country’s goals are to “optimize the year-round economy and enhance the local community character and cultural DNA. The five pillars are: be an advocate for Western Montanans, encourage responsible tourism  and recreation, enhance experiences in rural communities, shape demand and disperse visitors, and foster stronger stakeholder alignment and collaboration.”  

With a visitor season running from June through August, the area boasts many festivals, rodeos, powwows and other events in the summertime, plus the cherry harvest. This vibrant intersection of attractions and tourism also  causes more traffic and congestion, and fills campgrounds with out-of-state visitors, often leaving no room for locals.

Identified challenges from a series of 2021 meetings  with area residents, businesses and other stakeholders saw a “diminishing resident sentiment toward tourism.” Those are $10 words for the fact that 30% of residents felt there are too many visitors during peak season around Flathead Lake.

Since COVID disrupted our world, other challenges include workforce shortages, lack of affordable housing, and diminished community capacity, meaning that many businesses are overwhelmed with waves of visitors. 

The vehicle reservation system in Glacier Park was also considered a challenge by many stakeholders. Even people who have reservations can’t always find parking at Logan Pass, for instance.

Airlines had started adding flights to places with more outdoor recreational areas during and after COVID. Short-term rentals sprang up to make visitor stays more pleasant, but they also cut down on available long-term housing for workers and communities. 

More traffic means more stress on infrastructure, and Lake County’s tax structure doesn’t provide dollars from visitors for repairing, maintaining, and/or building new roads, campgrounds, rest areas, and other government structures. 

Local input

Meeting attendees answered the same questions that were asked in 2021. Overall the challenges were about the same. Suggestions to improve the  experience  for visitors include:

Polson entrepreneur Carol Lynn Lapotka suggested restricting left turns on Hwy. 93 and in Polson as a way of improving traffic flow. 

Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Councilman Tom McDonald brought up signage, since people want to know the names of the mountains and the creeks as they travel through a new area.

During a conversation about more things for tourists to do, McDonald mentioned plans the Tribes have to relocate the entrance to the Bison Range at the top of Ravalli Hill and also build a new Visitor’s Center there. With the stunning first view of the Mission Mountains paired with an interesting side trip, he suggested the change should draw more visitors to the Bison Range.

Jan Tusick, acting director of Mission West Community Development Partners, mentioned how well attended the annual Pedal-to-Plate event has been and suggested introducing more cycling events to the Mission Valley. 

For more information about Glacier Country Tourism, head to glaciermt.com or call 406-532-3234.