UM study quantifies wildfires’ impact on Montana tourism

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The West Fork fire as photographed Sept. 1 from Bobtail Road about a mile north of Milton Drive in Libby. (John Blodgett/The Western News file photo)

The impact of the 2017 wildfire season on Montana’s visitor economy was even worse than one tourism official expected.

“I knew the numbers would be high but what the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research reported was more than I anticipated,” Racene Friede, executive director of Glacier Country Tourism, said via email. “A loss of 800,000 non-resident visitors was significant.”

Friede, whose region includes Lincoln County, was citing the results of a study the University of Montana-based Institute released Dec. 19 and made available online at scholarworks.umt.edu/itrr_pubs/363.

“This (report) is something that was put together by ITRR at the request of many industry people including myself and other destination marketing organizations,” Friede wrote. “We knew this year was unprecedented in terms of fire and smoke impacts to Montana so we were grateful that ITRR was able to respond with their program to research what the hard impact numbers could be attributed to tourism revenue.”

According to the study’s findings, the entire state lost up to 800,000 visitors due to last summer’s fires and smoke, resulting “in a loss of $240.5 million in visitor spending” and “translating to a 6.8 percent loss in expected annual spending,” said Jeremy Sage, an economist at the Institute and the study’s co-author, in a news release.

The study notes that “tourism and outdoor recreation are staples in the Montana economy,” and that given the tourism industry is “inherently entwined” with the state’s natural resources, “when more than a million acres burn during the state’s peak travel season, negative effects should be anticipated.”

The study was based on 1,203 online surveys completed by “non-Montana residents who have been to Montana at some point previously and been intercepted” by Institute researchers during previous visitor surveys.

“This report gives us some understanding of how fires and smoke impact visitation,” Friede wrote.

Glacier Country Tourism didn’t need the report to know its area needed help, however.

“In response to what we knew many of our communities experienced, (we) worked with several communities including Libby to obtain an Community Emergency Marketing Grant from the Montana Office of Tourism and Business Development to launch to help offset the negative impacts of the warm season with a winter campaign to boost winter visitation,” Friede wrote.

The Libby project Friede referred to was a $5,000 grant Glacier Country Tourism helped the Libby Area Chamber of Commerce get in October as part of a state effort to help minimize the economic impact of the summer’s wildfires.

The grant would “go toward a campaign to attract people to the region during the winter,” Chamber President Amber Pacheco-Holm said at the time.

The Institutes’s report doesn’t drill down into the impacts to specific communities, and Friede likewise has no data describing, for example, how many tourist dollars Lincoln County lost as a result of numerous fires that burned beginning in late summer.

However, data tables in the report show a greater negative impact on activities such as scenic driving and day hiking in northwestern Montana versus other areas in the state.

In addition, the biggest portion of respondents — 39 percent — said they canceled trips to Glacier Country as a result of wildfire activity.

The report also considered the impact of 2017’s wildfires on Montana residents.

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