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Fired up about tourism

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Gov. Brian Schweitzer has recently been quoted by the likes of USA Today, National Public Radio and MSNBC, among others, on Montana’s drought conditions and the threat of the coming fire season. For the state’s tourism industry, there is concern that preparedness—often amplified into panic by national media outlets seeking sensational stories—may scare tourists at the peak of vacation-planning season: now.

Last summer, the Glacier National Park area brought in 42 percent of Montana’s bed tax money, says Linda Anderson, executive director of the Bigfork-based Glacier Country Regional Tourism Commission. Anderson worries that 2005 tourism could drop sharply if fire rumors spread like—well, like wildfire.

“We definitely worry,” Anderson says. “It’s been on CNN. It’s been on Fox News…if people read that, they can just go to Colorado or New Mexico.”

Gov. Schweitzer held a press conference alongside Anderson and other state tourism representatives Monday, March 14, in an attempt to ease such concerns, but the governor says his job is “to be prepared for the worst and to pray for the best.”

To that end, Schweitzer says that while he will continue encouraging visitors, his most crucial message is that potential private contractors, “people that have dozers, skidders, water trucks, aircraft and helicopters,” should immediately register with the U.S. Forest Service.

“I don’t know that we’re going to have an historic fire season,” Schweitzer says, “but I know that we are six years into a drought. Our snowpack is at historic lows. Our stored water both in reservoirs and in the Palmer Drought Index—that’s the soil-stored moisture—are very low.”

Both Anderson and Schweitzer consider it vital to remind potential tourists that Montana is an extremely large state, so “fires the size of Rhode Island,” as Anderson puts it, while alarming to Joe East Coaster, would actually leave much of Montana open for recreating.

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