SPRING 1997 Montanan - Volume 14, Number 3
by Constance Poten
At first it was a kick being the destination of choice for the rich, famous and fanatic-Hoyt Axton, Margot Kidder, Ted Turner, even the Unabomber. We gloated over the media playing up Montana's spaciousness, seclusion and wild and woolly critters, including us. We glowed about forsaking money and fame ourselves for the healthy, rugged life of knapweed, cows and snowplows. Now, for all that hubris, it seems as if that glory has turned right around and bitten us back.
"Stacked Wagon Wheels," copyrighted by Richard S. Buswell of Helena.
In a wink the Bitterroot Valley is becoming Levittown-with-a-view. Bozeman's foothills sprout boxy dream houses. Ranch-ettes fill the Helena Valley. Traffic jams Missoula streets. Taxes rise. Affordable housing is mostly a memory, though no Montana city reaches 100,000 in population.
In an effort to track migration patterns and find out if newcomers really are crowding out Montanans, University of Montana economists and geographers conducted surveys and polls. The findings are a shock: It appears that our torment is largely self-inflicted.
"Sixty percent of people moving to Montana from out of state have previous ties or relatives here," says James Sylvester, an economist at UM's Bureau for Business and Economic Research. "They fall in the forty-five to sixty-five age group and are heading back mostly from California and Washington."
Not only that, but almost 40 percent of migrants are simply moving within Montana. These people tend to be young, eighteen to thirty-four years old, and are largely moving to the area between Helena and Butte, the Flathead Valley, Gallatin County and the scenic Beartooth area. The most people are moving into Ravalli County from right down the road-Missoula. "The single fastest growing area of the state is the Bitterroot Valley, where Ravalli County's population mushroomed by 34.3 percent," says Larry Swanson, an economist and associate director for the Center for the Rocky Mountain West.
From 1990 to 1996, Montana ranks as one of the fastest growing states, fourteenth in the nation. The state's population has increased by 10 percent, from 799,065 to 879,320, according to the U. S. Bureau of the Census.
UM geography Assistant Professor Christiane von Reichert notes, however, that a rush-in, rush-out pattern has characterized migration in Montana's past century. From 1985 to 1990, the state lost a net 50,000 people.
Even though it's rare to find a parking space in Missoula, the statewide population has mostly just shifted. "The growth is very localized," says Sylvester. "The state as a whole is relatively flat."
Since 1990, the average annual growth has been a quiet 1.6 percent per year. So if you're looking for an espresso-free lifestyle, head east to the agricultural counties where deaths exceed births, the median age is over forty-five and people flee. "Cattle prices are at historic lows, all the oil has been found, the coal market is down," says Sylvester. "Eastern Montana already is the Big Open, informally."
The most popular region for all migrants is rural, western Montana (including Missoula County), which has seen a 17- percent increase in just the last six years. What's the draw? After connections, it's quality of life that attracts 40 percent of the newcomers and 16 percent of the returnees.
"Retirees can do better in Mineral and Sanders Counties," explains Swanson. "That's why the population is growing in spite of a decline in the wood products industry. They very sensibly move where taxes are lower and they get more value for their money."
Tied for second with lifestyle is employment, a goal for 33 percent of new migrants and 18 percent of those coming back to Montana.
What employment? you might ask.
"It's under the radar," says Sylvester. "We don't have any idea. No industries are on the increase in western Montana to explain the growth we're getting."
Swanson points to a combination of factors directing population movement. The increase in service jobs-including health care, legal, business and financial services-and tourism, one of the world's largest industries, influence migration patterns. But the aging population and the decline of economic segments like manufacturing are the biggest influences on where people live, he says, because people no longer have to live near the office.
"Today we are in the age of information technology, which is ubiquitous," Swanson says. "We have a 'footloose economy' that prospers in nice areas to live. Retirees are more prosperous and their children more far flung. You could say western Montana is fast-growing simply because it's an attractive place to live."
Tracking the data is difficult. People in America don't need permits to move and frequently don't license businesses. UM economists are refining their database to capture trends, but it's a restless era, and the population rolls back and forth for any number of reasons, including a bad winter. Cost of living and the tax structure are the biggest reasons for bidding Montana sayonara, followed by a poor job market, harsh climate and concern with crowding and overdevelopment. Montana's most transient county is Gallatin.
Who Are the Newcomers?
Montanans' fears that migrants are either rich Californians or highly educated operators taking away work is unfounded, said von Reichert in a presentation for UM's Center for the Rocky Mountain West. Cross-state migrants do tend to be better educated, but they aren't necessarily crowding residents out of the marketplace, according to von Reichert. Residents have a 5-percent unemployment rate compared to 14 percent among recent migrants. Residents also make up a much larger share of homeowners and buyers. More than half of all migrants rent housing.
Von Reichert also discovered that more migrants are in the low-income categories-under $10,000-$20,000. "That was a surprise to me," she said. " What happened to the rich Californians living in the Bitterroot? We actually had less than 2,000 wealthy migrants over three years."
Left out of the equation are all those vacation homes, says Swanson. "The statistics are understating what is happening," he says. "Sizable numbers of people have second homes, which accounts for much of the construction boom around Flathead Lake, and these people are not reflected in the numbers."
How to Handle the Boom?
Migration into Montana may have peaked in 1994-95, according to Sylvester. "Immigration has slowed down," he says, in part because of the growing economies in Washington, where Boeing is expanding, and California, where corporate downsizing has stabilized.
"The 6-percent growth rate of the early 1990s is not sustainable," Sylvester says. "Ravalli County was still high in 1996 at 4 percent, but Missoula County was back down to 1.1 percent, a reasonable rate over a long period."
Swanson notes, however, that accelerated growth is projected to continue. "Montana's population will top one million by the year 2005, an increase of nearly 16 percent concentrated in the western part of the state," he says. The western half of the state is one of the nation's fastest growing regions, in valleys confined by mountains and public lands. In spite of a tradition of resistance to land-use planning, county officials now face the problems of being too popular.
Because most miles are vertical, publicly owned or bone dry, Montana's population density is still a deceptively roomy 5.6 humans per square mile, third behind Alaska and Wyoming, wrote William Farr, UM professor of history and associate director of the Center for the Rocky Mountain West, in the Montana Business Quarterly. In the last twenty-five years the state has puttered along at a 23-percent growth rate, below the 26 percent national average. By comparison, Arizona bulked up by 130 percent.
As the Missoula rush subsides, housing prices are dropping off. Still, subdivisions, strip malls and highways proliferate. "lf we continue to deny that these growth pressures exist, our communities will increasingly be seen as unattractive and poorly planned," warns Swanson. "The quality of living in these communities and our future economic prosperity are at stake."
The challenge that remains for Montana is one that writer Wallace Stegner said faces the entire West: to build a civilization that matches our scenery.
Constance Poten is a writer who lives in Missoula.