Restless West laments fire closures

Far behind the fire lines, in seemingly every corner of Big Sky country, tens of thousands of Westerners are feeling the impact of a conflagration they are unlikely to ever see. Beset by blowing smoke for most of the summer, they're now having to contend with what is perhaps an even greater threat: massive land closures.

When Montana Gov. Marc Racicot last week closed nearly 20 million acres of forested land in the state to human travel, out of concern for public safety, he made life a little more difficult for Montanans like Steve Bjorklund. His Summit Bicycle Shop, after all, is normally teeming with mountain bikers from across America. But 12 miles away, the Gallatin National Forest - and its hundreds of miles of trails - are closed, leaving Mr. Bjorklund's store nearly empty.

"We've been dead in what typically is a busy time of year," he says.

It's obvious why Governor Racicot shut down a swath of public lands the size of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Connecticut combined. Some two-dozen major wildfires are burning across Montana, and conditions were worsening as high winds spread flames.

But the land closures in Montana and elsewhere are changing the daily routines and economic fortunes of many Westerners, sometimes dramatically. For some, it has resulted in a temporary exile from their homes or shorter walks with the dog. For Bjorklund and others, the closures mean lost revenue that would help sustain their businesses during the rest of the year.

Indeed, the proliferation of "No Trespassing" signs posted at more than a dozen national forests has altered deeply ingrained late-summer rituals throughout the West - even in places where there is no fire and only a whiff of smoke in the air. Gone are end-of-the-summer family camping trips to distant mountain lakes, huckleberry-picking expeditions in a year that has produced a bumper crop, and trips into the backcountry for the start of the hunting season around Labor Day. It's made visitors and locals alike realize just how much national and state parks, forests, and grasslands are part of the essential fabric of Montana life, says Bjorklund.

No more hikes

For one, the fires have created a sense of restlessness among all types of Montanans. Here outside Bozeman - and in other small Montana cities such as Missoula and Butte - popular hiking trails are no longer accessible.

"I need the regular exercise outdoors, and I'm just not getting it," says David Reeves, an accountant and hiker who treks hundreds of miles each summer. "I know most folks feel the same way. I don't see anybody grumbling, but everybody really misses the ability to use those lands. It is something you take for granted until it's pulled away."

Dog owners, he says, have been especially hard hit. They have been left with energetic animals that normally get daily workouts in national forests.

Even athletic teams across Montana and Idaho have been forced to hold their practices indoors because of thick smoke. And the Montana state university system says it will allow any student to show up for classes three weeks late, without penalty, if they sign up with fire crews.

Fires' cost

Figuring out exactly how much the fires - and the closures - have cost Montana is a near-impossible job with so many fires still burning. But "it's well into the millions of dollars ... [and] it's growing every day," says Vivian Manuel, a state spokeswoman.

The whitewater-rafting industry provides a good lens for considering the trickle-down impact of fires and related land closures, says Ms. Manuel.

When raft guides aren't allowed to float visitors down streams, it means the caterer who makes gourmet lunches suffers an economic loss, too. And so does the grocery store that provides the caterer's food, and the photo-processing company that takes pictures of the rafting clients, and the hotels filling fewer rooms, and the service stations selling less gas.

The conditions have even led some tourism businesses to voluntarily shut themselves down, as well. Earlier this August, while guiding a group of tourists into the mountains on horseback, trail boss Bob Melson noticed his steeds kicking sparks into the tinder-dry grasses.

"I've heard stories over the years that during extremely dry weather, horseshoe sparks can light fires," says Mr. Melson, a veteran wrangler working for the Nine Quarter Circle Dude Ranch south of Bozeman. "We didn't want to take any chances. My employer decided to close down the ranch early and send our guests home.

"We moved our horses, about 100 head, out of the mountains down to safer pastures," he adds.

Not all merchants and tourism officials, though, feel the situation is so dire. In truth, flames have touched only a small portion of Montana, despite the images displayed nightly on evening television newscasts that give viewers the impression that the entire state is burning up.

"We haven't been fighting wildfires; we've been fighting a battle against the mania of the media, which has exaggerated the magnitude of the fires and scared people away," says Dax Schieffer, spokesman for the Big Sky Ski and Summer Resort.

Although Big Sky Resort is surrounded by national forests closed to human travel, its 8,000 acres of privately owned ski slopes remain open to mountain bikers. Despite smoke wafting overhead from the Beaver Creek fire some 20 miles away, guests in the resort community are in no immediate danger, Mr. Schieffer notes.

Yellowstone National Park, too, remains open, as does Glacier National Park - although it is suffering from the perception that all lands in the state are closed.

On the offensive

In response to this warped public perception, Montana Travel, a state agency in charge of promoting tourism, has begun its own offensive campaign.

Monday, it posted a map on its Web site showing that an area equal in size to all of New England plus the state of New York still is open to outdoor recreation. It's a crucial message to get out with hunting season less than a week away, and millions of dollars in out-of-state tourism dollars at stake.

"At our Web site, we are not sugar-coating what's going on," says Travel Montana director Matthew Cohn. "We've tried to take the high road and give visitors the facts: the truth that portions of this state have major wildfires burning, but the vast majority does not."

And looking forward to next year, Mr. Cohn doesn't believe the fires will taint Montana's image as a vacation destination.

"Fire is part of the Western landscape. Think about it," he says. "New hurricanes will soon be on their way to Florida and the states along the Gulf of Mexico. They get them every year, and tourists come back."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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