Destination Seeley Lake

Seeley Lake is shifting from timber to recreation…\nbut at what price?


In the window of the Valley Market in Seeley Lake is a small green sign partially obscured by advertising placards. In rough block lettering it reads: “This business is supported by timber dollars.”

On this warm Saturday in early August the message seems imprecise considering the mix of patrons shopping in the market. Two teenage girls browse the sunblock rack. A couple of seniors, tourists or retirees most likely, argue over a head of lettuce. College students, up from Missoula for a weekend on the lake, load their coolers full of ice and Budweiser.

Though the manager and owner of the store are reluctant to speak about the continued relevance of the timber sign, one thing is clear. This business, once supported by timber dollars, is now drawing more and more of its earnings from day-trippers, campers and couples with summer homes at the nearby Double Arrow subdivision. In the off seasons of fall and spring, the market’s patrons may look different—Carhartts will replace bikinis, and Ford Rangers rather than Subaru Outbacks will sit in the parking lot—but on this Saturday it’s the tourists, not the loggers, in line at the checkout counter.

This is just one of many indications that the economic portrait of Seeley Lake is being repainted.

“Where it came from is logging,” says 27-year resident and former Seeley Lake Chamber of Commerce President Cheri Thompson of the town’s economy.

“Where it’s going is logging and recreation.” A microcosm of both western Montana and mountain towns throughout the West, the town of Seeley Lake is shifting from an extractive based economy to one based on recreation. To some this signals the loss of valued, traditional industries and the West’s ethos of solitude. Others applaud the shift as environmentally and financially progressive.

Either way, the current momentum toward recreation appears inevitable. While it’s unrealistic to think that any small Montana town will become the next Silicon Valley, the possibility of becoming the next Vail or Moab is very real. But only if residents want it to be that way.

For Seeley Lake’s 2,500 inhabitants, it may be a tough decision.

Rooted in timber

Seeley Lake’s Pyramid Mountain Lumber is as old as the town itself. But it’s not the mill’s age that makes the company unique, but its current business practices.

There have always been two major complaints about Montana’s extraction industries: Their profits don’t stay in the state, and their post-operation cleanups leave much to be desired. For decades, massive, multinational corporations like the Anaconda Copper Company and Champion Lumber made their fortunes, only to pull up stakes and leave behind masses of unemployed workers and toxic nightmares.

Uncharacteristically, Pyramid isn’t guilty of either of these sins. Started in the winter of 1949 when Fred Johnson and Oscar Mood packed up their families and headed west from Minnesota to Montana, the mill remains to this day a small, family-owned business.

“We’re in our third generation here at Pyramid,” says company personnel and safety director Todd Johnson, Fred’s grandson. “My father, Roger Johnson, is still very active in the operations.”

Through economic highs and lows, the mill has always been the town’s biggest employer, and treats and pays its workforce well. As one employee puts it, “It’s the whole reason this town is here.”

Staying small, local and family owned makes Pyramid something of an anomaly in the timber industry. It’s a company that residents love to work for and environmentalists are willing to praise.

But staying small isn’t always the best business strategy. Most timber companies have evolved by swallowing up smaller companies and selling off their devalued logging land as real estate. Recently when Plum Creek Timber put about 20,000 acres of land up for sale in the Swan River Valley, it angered many residents who want that land to remain undeveloped. Pyramid has never been big enough to swallow another company nor does it own the land it harvests. This wins them friends but also makes it difficult to compete in a market dominated by multinationals.

During the 1990s, Pyramid managed to hang on while many of the state’s other small mills were going extinct. As similar operations in Montana go under, they wondered how long they could stay afloat. In October of 2000, they almost went under.

A combination of poor lumber markets, increasing foreign competition and the need to upgrade their technology, in conjunction with dramatic leaps in the cost of electricity made keeping the 50-year-old business running impossible. In November of 2000, Pyramid announced it would be closing its doors. Then something miraculous happened.

“The community, the county government and Dick King of the Missoula Area Economic Development Corporation [MAEDC] approached us about what our situation was,” says Johnson. “They said, ‘If we put something together, would you look at it?’”

Pyramid agreed to look at the plan but made no guarantees. As the owners of a private company, the Johnson and Mood families had everything invested in the company. Its failure meant not only the loss of 130 jobs but also their own financial ruin.

A few months later, a rescue plan was developed by the Missoula County Commissioners and MAEDC involving Community Development Block Grant money, federally guaranteed bank loans, and a re-structuring of Pyramid’s existing debt.

So close to retirement, the Moods decided to sell their portion of the company. But the Johnsons believed they could make it work.

“The last thing you want to do as struggling company is take on more debt,” says Johnson. “But we took a look at the package and decided to make a go of it.”

MAEDC president Dick King understood the economic and social importance of the mill and didn’t want to see it go under.

“They are the key employer in Seeley Lake,” says King. “The jobs pay well with good benefits. Can you raise a family with this job? Yes, you can.” King also knew that the impact of the mill’s closure would reverberate throughout the town, as other local businesses and the school system are inextricably linked to Pyramid.

“We’ve lost so many small, independent mills in this state, it’s essential to keep these mills,” he says. “It’s not just the jobs, it’s what they put into the town.”

The refinancing and funds allowed Pyramid to purchase the state-of-the-art technology they needed to stay competitive. Nothing about the loan or the new equipment assures that Pyramid will stay in business forever, but it has boosted the morale of many in the town—and pleased some environmentalists, who consider the mill a good model for responsible forest stewardship.

The fact that it’s a locally owned, privately held company means that Montanans, not distant corporate executives, are making the decisions. Environmental groups say this makes the companies easier to work with and demonstrates its commitment to the future of the region.

“There are no stockholders in Seattle or Connecticut at Pyramid,” says Montana Wilderness Association Conservation Director John Gatchell. “So there’s no compulsion just to make a quick buck and leave.”

Gatchell refers to other timber companies’ cut-and-run policies of extracting all the timber from the land and then selling it as real estate for development.

“I don’t see them pounding to get into roadless areas like other companies,” says Gatchell. “They seem more cooperative.”

A few weeks ago, Gatchell spent two days observing Pyramid’s operations. During that time he spoke with company representatives about restoring watersheds, preserving roadless areas and general stewardship of the land. While they didn’t always agree, Gatchell says he came away impressed with the company’s conservation efforts.

People tend to group timber companies all together but this is a mistake, he says. In Pyramid Gatchell sees the future of Montana’s timber industry –companies based on responsible stewardship of forests, not the liquidation of them.

But for Pyramid to become the model of an environmentally responsible timber company it must also stay in business. This is something the 130 employees and the whole town can hope for, but no one can guarantee.

From chainsaws to snowmobiles

In Seeley Lake and the rest of Montana, extraction may have come first but recreation was soon to follow. After the founding of Glacier National Park in 1910, travelers began to take notice of the state’s unrivaled beauty. But it wasn’t until the 1950s, with the national park craze and the automobile boom, that tourists really started exploring stretches of the western Montana backcountry.

Once advertised as “the quickest route from Yellowstone to Glacier,” Seeley Lake got a trickle of the business from park visitors but most tourists bypassed the town, traveling instead the well-worn route through the Flathead Valley. Eventually, Seeley Lake residents were determined to make Highway 83 a more competitive route.

“In 1982, a group of us got together and started to evaluate the economy,” says Thompson at the Seeley Lake Chamber of Commerce. “Even then we could see the change in logging. The handwriting was on the wall.” The group made a list of options for attracting new industries. They discussed the possibilities of mining but didn’t like the ramifications it would have on the land. After investigating various manufacturing options, they concluded that the town was simply too far from a commercial hub to make it feasible.

“We just made a list of what we had that was marketable that could help the economy in Seeley,” says Thompson. “Recreation was the obvious answer.” The town spent the ’80s and ’90s finding ways to convince travelers to stop and stay awhile. The object was to make Seeley Lake a destination, not just a place to gas up on the way to somewhere else. Soon, they built cafes and shops, beautified streets and attracted outfitters.

“We used to have just a few dinky motels that were never full,” says Ron Cox inside the tiny, one-room cabin that serves as the Seeley Lake Chamber of Commerce tourism office. “But last night you couldn’t find a place to stay.”

Kathy and Bob Harlock have seen this firsthand. Two years ago the Harlocks left their corporate jobs in suburban Arizona to become the proprietors of the Seeley Lake Motor Lodge.

“I call it Disney, Montana,” says Kathy Harlock, of the adventure wonderland and playground that Seeley Lake is quickly becoming. In two years, the couple has added six rooms to the motel and is developing RV sites behind the lodge. Even with the extra accommodations, they predict that they may not have enough room to accommodate all the guests expected during the busy winter and summer seasons.

“We turned people away 122 days last year,” says Kathy Harlock. “Can you believe it? 122 days!”

But with more people comes more activity—snowmobiles sharing the trails with cross-country skiers and water skiers and wave runners plying the same waters as anglers.

“We have all these groomed trails out here and people snowmobile on them and people ski on them. We even drive our horse and sleigh on them,” says Thompson. “But the rule is, when you meet someone else you’re respectful. As long we do that we’ll have a great reputation for recreation.”

Not everyone has experienced that mutual respect. A common complaint is that the increasing numbers of snowmobilers are trespassing into federal or tribal wilderness areas. Since the foothills and logging roads around Seeley Lake provide easy access, and state-funded snowmobile trails lead right up to wilderness boundaries, it’s easy for the sleds to sneak across lines. But the last three years have proved different, says Seeley Lake District Ranger Tim Love. He says the stereotype of the abusive, law-breaking snowmobiler is becoming a thing of the past.

“We’ve worked with the local [snowmobiling] club, the Drift Riders, a lot,” says Love. “They’ve worked and promoted efforts to stay out of federal and tribal lands.”

How effective this effort has been in improving the sport’s image remains to be seen, but any effort is welcomed in a town increasingly dependent on the motorized recreation industry.

“That’s our whole business,” says Troy Bernt of the Seeley Lake Fun Center. “We may rent a couple of cross-country skies and canoes, but it’s the snowmobiles and wave runners that keep us in business.” Conservationist aren’t thrilled. The picture they see is of one of the state’s few locally-owned, environmentally responsible extractive industries being edged aside by a modes of recreation that are noisy, disrupt wildlife, and pollute, the air, water, and soil. But it may be difficult to argue with economic prosperity.

Calling Seeley Lake home

The Seeley Lake Chamber of Commerce doesn’t collect data on the increase in tourism, but its members provide plenty of anecdotal information. At the Seeley Lake Fun Center, for instance, Burnt speaks of a “steady increase.” Across the street, Penny Copps, owner of Deer Country Quilts, says her shop is becoming a “destination store.” Cox, who lived in Seeley Lake during the ’70s and ’80s and only recently returned, can’t quote hard numbers but sees the changes as obvious.

“The entrance to Seeley Lake used to be a pristine meadow,” he says. “Now you come into the valley and you get a manicured golf course and a hodgepodge of logs from the log home manufacturer and the trophy homes.” Stan Nicholson, president of the Double Arrow Landowners Association, has been informally monitoring the growth of the town for about a decade. Over the last 10 years he has tried to count all the major projects undertaken by the community—including remodeled schools, improved highways, even the development of a food bank.

“There are 30 of these things, not counting new businesses,” he says. Nicholson attributes these projects not to the mill or steadily increasing tourism but to new residents.

In the 1990s there were about 100 homes in Seeley Lake, says Nicholson. Today, that number is closer to 350. And the construction increases, with as many as 40 new homes being built this year.

Thompson’s words reflect this trend. “We’re not a boom town,” she says. “We’re a maturing town.” Even as a maturing town, Seeley Lake is at a watershed moment. Residents will have to remain proactive if they don’t want strip malls and larger hotel chains to diminish the charm and character of their small town. Looking at other western communities like Vail and Moab, Seeley Lake residents know that have to plan for the imminent growth. As evidenced throughout Montana and the West, recreation may be a remedy for both the economic vacuum created by the departure of extractive industry, but it can also turn their town into “Disney, Montana,” something many Seeley Lake citizens aren’t so sure they’re ready for.

Home rule

How Seeley Lake governs itself without a local government by Todd Struckman

In Seeley Lake, a town of 1,200 people located more than 50 miles from the county seat in Missoula, questions about its local government typically generate three responses.

First there is “What local government?” Then there is “Isn’t that an oxymoron?” Finally there is “Volunteer boards! I’m bored of boards.” In a sense, all three responses are accurate. Seeley Lake is unincorporated and therefore has no budget authority to fund a police force or a road department. Although a patchwork of single-issue taxing boards has been assembled over the years—water, cemetery, fire and so on—the only elected body that appears city-like is the community council, which has no real decision-making power.

But only the third response begins to describe how things really get done in Seeley Lake, where a large number of residents are involved in various community groups that make up for the lack of an urban administration and whatever services the county fails to provide. For instance, as many as 100 people have shown up for meetings of the locally organized crime victim advocacy group, Seeley-Swan Talk, Education, and Protection (SSTEP), which combats domestic violence and sex crimes. Given the town’s population, such a response would be equivalent to 1,500 people attending a similar meeting in Missoula.

At the fire hall, Pat Swan-Smith works as district administrator, where her job description includes everything from office management to driving fire trucks. As she recalls, in the mid-’90s Missoula County attempted to provide mental health advisors for victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse. When the effort stalled, she and a dozen other residents picked up the cause. Since then, the program has grown to include simultaneous responses with law enforcement and educational activities in schools.

“Being in a small town everyone knows about everyone’s problems,” Swan-Smith says. “But instead of being something to talk about—like gossip—it’s about change.”

Cheryl Thompson, a council member and owner of the NAPA auto parts store, doesn’t see anything unusual about how engaged the citizens are in Seeley Lake.

“It’s just that we’re organized,” Thompson says. “If you ask me for an organization in town, I can give you a name. If you asked me that in Missoula, I’d have to go look around first.”

The heart of the community, says Thompson, can be found by looking at a list of names and addresses of people who can be called upon to help out on community projects. When the community council holds its annual clearinghouse meeting, the members mail out more than 100 invitations to churches, civic boards, and other organizations.

“The idea is that if the water board wants to dig a ditch, everyone who might want to be involved gets a chance,” Thompson says.

This emphasis on participation is so ingrained in the town that several years ago “volunteerism” was chosen as the grand marshal of the summer parade. Across two full pages, the newspaper carried the names of people who had contributed time to improving their community. Organizers then drove a truck in the parade upon which anyone could ride.

Penny Copps, proprietor of Deer Country Quilts, volunteers on the sewer board, even though Seeley Lake doesn’t have a sewer yet. She says she isn’t sure the townspeople could afford the taxes to install one.

But she is sure of two things. First, because the entire community is served by individual septic systems, aquifer degradation is inevitable in the future. Second, although expensive, a sewer may be the secret to creating affordable housing because it would allow people to build on smaller lots.

“Without a sewer, you have no ability to do higher density housing,” Copps says.

Meanwhile, in the courthouse back in Missoula, county officials hired or elected to marshal resources, combat crime, and help low-income residents are impressed with the work of people like Thompson, Swan-Smith and Copps. Leslie McClintock, coordinator of the crime victim advocate program, recalls how her department—the Office of Planning and Grants—had to expand the definition of their work to include innovative thinking from women such as Swan-Smith, who asked if such programs could be included in the town’s regional plan.

“We were thinking more traditional land-use planning,” McClintock said. “They were thinking community planning.”

Commissioner Jean Curtiss, who graduated high school in Seeley Lake and now lives in Missoula, says she considers herself a representative of the community. She doesn’t anticipate Seeley Lake filing for incorporation anytime soon since the tax base is still insufficient, but she expects the town to continue serving itself—in its own independent way.

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