MISSOULA - Most of us suspected the 2017 fire season was having a significant impact on Montana’s summer tourist season.
Now a new report by researchers from the University of Montana shows the lost business was likely even more expensive than we might have guessed, sucking more than $240 million out of visitor spending this year.
Tourism has gotten to be a huge business in Montana but when you drop a major fire season on top of the most profitable time of the year, businesses that depend on that summer income really begin to suffer.
This year, the mid-July lightning storms that started the largest blazes in Western Montana put a miserable, and smoky damper on the height of not only the tourist season but the prime time for in-state vacations and weekend trips by Montanans.
Just how big was the impact? UM’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research now estimates Montana lost up to 800,000 visitors. And the researchers estimate that means visitor spending was off by more than $240 million for 2017.
While a third of the visitors surveyed that did come here in July, August or September said the smoke wasn’t bad enough to negatively impact them, 10% said they couldn’t go to their planned destination, with 7% switching to a different part of the state.
As you would expect with the largest fires in the Lolo and Flathead national forests -- and the Sprague Fire closing popular spots on the west side of Glacier National Park -- Missoula and Flathead counties were hit the hardest by those change in plans.
The study also found that 76% of all Montanans said they had to cope with weeks of smoke in their hometowns, with 87% in Western Montana and 90% in Southwest Montana complaining of poor air quality. Additionally, 90% of those surveyed said they couldn’t go hiking and fishing as often while 25% canceled their in-state travel plans altogether.
The researchers say the study shows a need for a “wide-ranging, action-driven conversation” on how Montana needs to adapt to more intense fire seasons and build businesses that can withstand those impacts.
They warn firefighting costs, loss of business and disillusioned Montanans could become a bigger issue in the years to come.