Finding balance in tourism and quality of life

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Flathead Valley locals tend to love this time of year — after Labor Day and before ski season — when the sidewalks are a little less crowded and it’s easier to get a table at popular restaurants. This “shoulder season,” as it’s called, gives us a little breathing room before the next onslaught of visitors.

Dealing with the brisk tourist traffic that fills up every crevice of our valley, especially during the summer months, is a love-hate relationship for many year-round residents. We know tourism is a vital part of the local economy and we love the money they bring our businesses, but we loath the upswing in traffic on roads and trails, and the overall congestion of packing thousands of visitors into our space.

With this in mind, it’s encouraging to learn about two innovative approaches being used in Glacier National Park to deal with increased park visitation. Reporter Duncan Adams writes in today’s Inter Lake about Preventative Search and Rescue, a program that’s been used successfully in other national parks to help visitors be more prepared, self-sufficient and responsible for their own safety.

Given that there were 76 search-and-rescue operations and 157 medical calls in Glacier this summer season, it makes a lot of sense. The other tactic is called “Wildlife Jammers,” a program that arranges for paid staff and volunteers to respond to wildlife jams, with the goal of educating visitors about keeping a safe distance from wildlife and moving motorists along.

One startling statistic from Glacier’s 2018 season is that there were 872 “wildlife jams” or similar incidents.

Safety concerns are real, not only on the trails and in the park, but also on the water. A study of Flathead River system use found that 5,411 watercraft were counted in 60 days below Moccasin Creek on the Middle Fork of the Flathead. That’s a lot of boats and rafts, and a lot of potential for mishaps.

It’s not just Glacier Park officials who are taking a proactive approach to increased visitation. Earlier this year Whitefish turned to its business owners and community members for feedback about how to make tourism continue to benefit the city. A tourism master plan steering committee held its first forum in May to gauge the public’s feelings about the resort town’s growth as a tourist destination.

At that forum, one woman said she’s come to feel like Whitefish citizens are being asked to put on a show for visitors, that Whitefish has become on par with Disneyland. “It makes me feel like we’re characters, like we’re here for a tourist’s pleasure,” she said.

People come to the Flathead for its authenticity, its beauty and its people. Creating a clear vision for how tourism can safely grow while still allowing locals to maintain our quality of life is a necessary endeavor for both visitors and those of us lucky to call this place home.

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