Dry run

Tourism hits drought's rocks



Those who still believe global warming is just some fantasy created by environmental alarmists are probably having a tough time dealing with Montana’s current springlike conditions. After all, we’re supposed to be in midwinter, when the snow piles deep in the mountains to provide us with the slow-melting reserves that will carry our arid state through the summer. Instead, people are golfing in the valleys and the only things stacking up are the very real economic and environmental impacts of the No Snow Blues.

Last week Gov. Schweitzer attended his first meeting of Montana’s Drought Advisory Council. The governor addressed the problem head-on, saying Montana was in its worst drought in “60 or 70 years,” which, if you do the math, would take us back to about the time Woody Guthrie was writing his Dust Bowl tunes. Council members from a host of federal and state agencies presented data that backed up Schweitzer’s grim assessment—and went on to warn that it would take 300 percent of the normal moisture level to make up the current snowpack shortfall. In other words, there is no realistic chance that we will see our mountains return to their white winter cloaks unless it snows for the proverbial 40 days and 40 nights.

So what does all this mean for Montana? Well, the first and most obvious victims of our nonexistent snowpack are winter sports. The ski industry, for instance, is literally “on the rocks.” Due to a lack of early snow, most of Montana’s ski areas did not open for Thanksgiving and many were barely open over the Christmas and New Year holidays. Most analysts agree that for ski areas to stay in business, it is essential that they capture the holiday crowds. With no snow, that didn’t happen, and the millions of dollars that would have come into the state went elsewhere. Likewise, the hundreds of ski area jobs—from lift operator to restaurant worker—simply never materialized.

Ski areas are not alone in singing the No Snow Blues, however. The Race to the Sky, a long, grueling dogsled race near Lincoln that attracts big-name mushers, was canceled for the first time in its history due to lack of snow. The same dry trails that sank the dogsled race also killed the snowmobile recreation that helps keep Lincoln going during the normally snowed-in winter months. Again, the economic impacts start at the bottom and cascade outward through the economy. No snowmobile or motel rentals and no restaurant meals mean no local jobs and no local income for Montanans.

Writing off winter tourism this year will undoubtedly impact the state’s fiscal projections, but the real hit to the economy will escalate when the run-off that normally brings our rivers and streams to flood stage winds up being just a trickle in the dry, brown gullies.

Again, recreation and the tourism industry it has spawned are likely to take the first hit. No run-off means a short or nonexistent floating season. All those kayakers, canoeists, rafters and drift-boat anglers who would normally travel the state in search of the perfect waves, the gnarliest rapids or the thrill of taking Montana’s famed wild trout, will be severely limited in their choices. Rivers with natural flows will be the first to go. Rivers that are regulated by reservoirs will hold up for a while longer—but with little or no inflow, the outflows must be lowered. The progression is predictable: First the whitewater disappears; then, as temperatures rise and flows fall, the fishing and floating gets shut down, too. The guiding jobs disappear, equipment rentals and sales follow, and the economic impacts cascade through one community after another.

Without more moisture, agriculture will suddenly find itself in yet another drought disaster. Competition for what little water comes down out of the mountains will be fierce, and irrigators—never shy about taking what they believe is theirs—will do whatever they think is necessary to “save the farm.” In most cases, this amounts to diverting water from downstream users in a thousand tiny (or not so tiny) irrigation canals. If the summer is as hot and dry as this winter has been, the dwindling snowmelt water won’t save them for long. As the farm and ranch economy suffers, so do those who sell farmers their fertilizers, seeds and implements, piling one local economic woe upon another.

In the meantime, the warm winter temperatures are brewing up their own environmental disaster in the forests. Bark beetles, the bugs responsible for the wholesale browning of our once-green mountains, normally breed just once a year and are killed off by Montana’s normal sub-zero winter temperatures. But not this year, or in most recent winters. Instead of freezing to death, the gnawing little beetles are breeding like crazy, promising an even larger plague to attack our increasingly drought-weakened forests.

Needless to say, more dry brown trees are likely to mean more forest closures to prevent the conflagrations that will surely come. That means loss of logging and mill jobs, another hit to the tourism industry, and all the ancillary economic impacts that follow.

In years past the state has looked to the federal government for drought aid, but those days may be gone. The Bush budget increases military spending to $1.5 billion a day—but slashes spending for hundreds of domestic programs including drought relief and farm subsidies. Montana’s congressional delegation has promised to put up a fight, but so far the military-industrial complex that is running the nation has had absolutely no trouble getting what it wants when it wants it.

Somewhere along the line, the ledger will have to be tallied and equity will be questioned. If agriculture gets drought relief, why not tourism—after all, they are suffering similar economic impacts from the same cause. If we help out ranchers, why not ski areas, floating and fishing guides, or hotels?

The No Snow Blues is a very long song—and sadly, we’re just at the beginning.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at


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