A downtrodden town turns toward its last asset: public lands.
STORY BY ZACHARIAH BRYAN
PHOTOS BY PARKER SEIBOLD
When the SK Fingerjoint Mill went up in flames last November in Libby, Montana, residents weren’t just watching a fire; they were witnessing the last piece of their town’s century-old timber industry burn to the ground.
No one died, but 18 employees were left without jobs, a hard position when living in a town with few opportunities. The mill had just reopened three years prior, bringing activity to the site for the first time since Stimson Lumber Company had shut it down in 2002 and igniting hopes that similar businesses could find a home in Libby. At the moment, it’s unclear if the owners will be able to rebuild and re-employ.
“It’s a huge impact, not only financially but emotionally,” said Lincoln County Commissioner Mark Peck. “It was Libby people who started it, it was homegrown, it was successful.”
Tucked away in the northwestern corner of Montana just 30 miles from the Idaho border, Libby, population 2,700, is a town used to bad luck.
"You’ve had one bad card after another played, and you know in the end it’s us that live here that get left holding the bad cards."
In the 1990s, not long after logging reached a peak of 250 million board feet per year, the timber industry collapsed when lawsuits from environmental groups forced the U.S. Forest Service to reduce logging on public lands. In 1999, people discovered that the local vermiculite mine, which had employed hundreds of people over decades until it closed in 1990, made people sick. Hundreds of people died from asbestos-related illnesses.
In 2002, Libby became an EPA Superfund site, a reputation that would become hard to shake.
Jeff Gruber, a teacher who grew up in Libby, likens the town’s history to a game of poker.
“You’ve had one bad card after another played, and you know in the end it’s us that live here that get left holding the bad cards,” he explained.
Now, more than 15 years after the Superfund designation, asbestos cleanup is winding down and a new crop of local leaders are trying to turn Libby’s luck around by rethinking the city’s identity, revitalizing downtown, marketing the region’s outdoor virtues and attracting young people. For a town with an unemployment rate of 8.4 percent and a median age of 50.5, it’s a movement that couldn’t come soon enough.
“We’re pimply faced teenagers starting to grow up and get good grades and look like we’re trying to do something with our lives,” Peck said.
Peck first got involved in the effort in the spring of 2015. He had returned to town five years previous, after serving in the Air Force for 20 years, and was just elected commissioner when a friend referred him to University of Montana business students and Missoula marketing agency PartnersCreative. Together, they worked on a rebranding effort that would become the blueprint for marketing Libby’s future.
Peck calls Libby the “right remote,” a concept that came out of the rebranding effort. The idea is not to become glutted with visitors, but be an attractive place to live.
Libby’s location lends itself to this idea. Few people casually pass through on Highway 2 and the closest major city is Kalispell, 90 miles away. The town is hugged by the 95,000-acre Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, a 35-mile stretch of peaks and valleys that locals claim are just as beautiful as anything in Glacier National Park, and without the millions of people.
It was this remote setting that drew acclaimed cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki to shoot a scene for the movie The Revenant. In the film, a bearded Leonardo DiCaprio splashes frantically as he drops over the intimidating Kootenai Falls, dodging a flurry of arrows from his pursuers.
For some, it doesn’t take long to fall in love with Libby. It only took Nick Raines three weeks of hiking, backpacking and fishing to realize this is where he needed to be. He was tired of living in Midwestern cities, tired of having to travel to enjoy the outdoors. He wanted to just be there.
There’s no bigger fan of boosting outdoor recreation in Libby than Raines, who joined the local mountain bike club and now works as environmental coordinator for Hecla Mining. He believes the future of the town depends on it—at least in part. Various groups are building and promoting new mountain bike, horseback riding, cross-country skiing and snowmobile trails—even a biathlon trail.
"The more people build on [downtown revitalization], the better it is for everybody. I think it’s working and people are excited about it."
“One of our biggest assets here is the access we have to public land here—absolutely beautiful public land,” he said.
As part of the rebranding process, the Libby Chamber of Commerce launched a new website last summer to attract more people like Raines. On the homepage, a video on repeat shows people kayaking the Kootenai River, a happy couple walking among towering trees, attractive people having a beer at the local brewery—the kind of outdoor wonderland that one would expect from Whitefish, not Libby.
Of course, there is a balance, Raines said. Part of Libby’s allure is how quiet it is. As Peck said, they want to keep the sense of the “right remote.”
Fortunately, it’s so far away from everything, Raines said he doesn’t think that’ll be a problem.
Walking through the doors of the Cabinet Mountain Brewing Company late on a Friday afternoon, it’s hard to believe that people would call Libby quiet. It’s a cacophony of voices from people young and old, both visitors and locals.
Co-owner Sarah Sorensen first got the idea to open a brewery when she visited Philipsburg, Montana, with her husband in 2012. She saw how much energy it was bringing to the community there and thought a brewery could do the same for Libby. She contacted her friend Kristin Smith, who had moved to town for a government job a few years earlier, and the two started hatching a plan.
Locating the brewery downtown on Mineral Avenue, nicknamed “The Gut,” was important to their vision of creating a community gathering space. Smith and Sorensen purchased the oldest building in downtown—built in 1904—and opened their doors in July 2014.
Business has only grown since then, Smith said, and the brewery has been a catalyst for downtown revitalization. Where once there were boarded-up doors and empty windows, now there are new businesses, including an ice cream spot and a clothing shop.
“The more people build on [downtown revitalization], the better it is for everybody,” Smith said. “I think it’s working and people are excited about it.”
But if Libby is going to succeed, it needs more jobs, Peck said.
If Libby is going to thrive, he argues that the town needs major employers and high-paying jobs—something Libby hasn’t been able to offer for decades.
Oone skeptic of current efforts is Bill Payne, the 82-year-old owner of a heavy equipment repair shop and parts distributor. He opened his business in 1969 and has seen the ebb and flow of industries in the community.
“For some reason, the local merchants have great hopes that tourism is going to take off, but I think that’s false reasoning,” he said.
If Libby is going to thrive, he argues that the town needs major employers and high-paying jobs—something Libby hasn’t been able to offer for decades. Even though his business is one of the only heavy equipment repair shops in the area, he’s not sure Payne Machinery can hang on much longer.
At its peak, he employed 22 people and pulled in $2.25 million in annual gross sales. Now, there are just seven employees and the business makes about $1 million yearly. Payne has only managed to keep things going by getting creative: reaching out to customers beyond Lincoln County and dropping fire and liability insurance.
Payne said he’s not sure what he will do with his business. He tried selling it in 2007, but no one expressed interest. It’s a niche business in a dying market.
When it comes to getting more decent-paying blue-collar jobs, it seems Libby keeps drawing bad hands.
A welding company came to town in 2009, employing 70 people, only to shutter its doors a few years later.
Just last year, the port authority finished a project that connected the business park to the main BNSF Railway line, a crucial step toward attracting new businesses. The problem: the SK Fingerjoint Mill was the only company ready to use it, and it burned down a few days before the city was scheduled to celebrate the spur completion.
"The only way as a county we have to get revenue is [to] tax your property. If 78 percent of your county is untouchable that makes it pretty tough to gain any wealth."
The 400-acre business park, which was designated in 2003 after Stimson shut down its last lumber mill, is meant to be a job creator. But convincing businesses to move to town is easier said than done. Tina Oliphant, executive director of the Lincoln County Port Authority, said they inherited 80-plus years of “deferred maintenance.” Roads, sewer, water, buildings and the rail spur all needed repair.
Peck admits there are challenges when it comes to renovating the business park and promoting economic development. Mainly, there’s no money, because most of the county is public land.
“The only way as a county we have to get revenue is [to] tax your property. If 78 percent of your county is untouchable that makes it pretty tough to gain any wealth,” he said.
In the meantime, city leaders are hopeful that a pair of proposed silver and copper mines will be approved, providing the community with hundreds of jobs. However, the permitting process has been slow, with a coalition of conservation groups expressing concerns about detrimental environmental effects, such as the endangerment of native bull trout and grizzly bear populations.
City leaders aren’t holding their breath when it comes to the mines. They’ve seen their share of battles between industry and environmental groups. Raines believes public lands could play a key part in Libby’s future.
According to a 2017 report by Bozeman-based nonprofit research group Headwaters Economics, public lands have been essential to the success of Montana’s fastest growing counties. Across the West, rural counties with higher percentages of public lands have seen four times as many people moving in, better employment rates, a greater variety of jobs and over double personal income.
If other cities can benefit, why can’t Libby?
“The more we can do to promote what we have to offer is going to go a long way in Libby’s future,” Raines said.
Peck is hopeful about the future of Libby’s economy. He thinks the right pieces are falling into place and that the right people are making things happen. Maybe soon, Libby will be dealt a decent poker hand.
Zachariah Bryan is finishing up his master’s in environmental journalism at the University of Montana in Missoula. He previously spent time reporting in Seattle and Alaska, diligently covering drunken bar brawls and high school plays.