Places like Gardiner are as much a part of the Western landscape as bison herds and pristine vistas, as much a part our national character as John Wayne movies.

BY ERIC DIETRICH

 

In Gardiner, Montana, a few hundred yards from the stone-faced Roosevelt Arch that’s welcomed tourists into Yellowstone National Park for generations, there sits a long, slant-roof building that serves locals instead of visitors: Gardiner Public School.

It’s is a point of pride in this 900-person town, where people live so close to wildlife that they have to shovel bison dung off the school’s sports field every spring. Almost three-quarters of its 78 students take Advanced Placement courses, and 95 percent of them graduate. The school has a gold medal ranking from U.S. News & World Report, which calls it the best high school in the state.

It’s also in trouble.

Places like Gardiner are as much a part of the Western landscape as bison herds and pristine vistas, as much a part our national character as John Wayne movies. When the gun-toting cowboy vanquishes the outlaw posse on a dusty main street and rides off into the sunset, it’s the townspeople—and their town—that he’s saved.

In the mythology of the American West, these small towns are places where life can be lived free from the grind of the urban rat race, places where neighborliness remains tradition in an ever-lonelier world. They’re places where kids can roam and hardy locals can thrive by working hard and taking care of their own.

But as the global economy pulls more jobs and more people into cities, rural living is a lifestyle in decline. The nation’s non-metro counties lost a combined 200,000 residents between 2010 and 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. While urban America saw a net gain of 3.6 million jobs between 2007 and 2015, rural America lost 400,000.

It’s a full-fledged scenery economy, and a booming one.

 

Gardiner, like many towns across the Greater Yellowstone region, is an exception. Tourism, its economic lifeblood, is pumping stronger than ever. The park’s north entrance tallied more than 360,000 vehicles last year—up 50 percent from a decade ago. Collections from Gardiner’s June-to-September resort tax indicate that businesses brought in almost $18 million during the 2016 tourism season—nearly $20,000 per resident.

It’s a full-fledged scenery economy, and a booming one. While gold mining was a major employer in the area as recently as the mid-1990s, when 130 workers making good money lost their livelihoods with the closure of the Jardine Mine, these days Gardiner’s job opportunities revolve around landscape. After a pair of companies announced plans for new gold mines in the area in recent years, residents and tourism-reliant business owners persuaded both Democratic Sen. Jon Tester and Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte to introduce anti-mining legislation.

For as much wealth as the scenery brings in—because of it, in fact—Gardiner is an increasingly hard place to raise a family, residents say.

 

Long gone is the era when Montana’s economy and politics were dominated by Butte copper barons and their corporate heir, the Anaconda Company. Two of the state’s three current federal delegates, Gianforte and fellow Republican Sen. Steve Daines, have built their political careers instead on the success of their Bozeman software company, RightNow Technologies— which, back in the early 2000s, famously recruited employees by putting up a billboard along the highway between Bozeman and Yellowstone.

Even so, it’s an open question whether the modern scenery boom can support the sort of close-knit communities that once grew up in the Northern Rockies around agriculture, timber and mining operations that lasted long enough for worker camps to mature into bona fide towns. Gardiner, a tourism town since it was founded in the late 1800s by an ousted Yellowstone concessionaire, is a case study in why.

For as much wealth as the scenery brings in—because of it, in fact—Gardiner is an increasingly hard place to raise a family, residents say. The school is great and there are plenty of jobs, but even with the area’s 1,600-plus beds of commercial lodging, the rise of Airbnb-style vacation rentals puts would-be renters and homebuyers in direct competition with tourists. In a town that’s hemmed in by its scenery, surrounded by the nation’s first national park on one side and Gallatin National Forest on the other, housing has become a community crucible.

In early March, Gardiner school board member George Bumann took to a community Facebook group to share a chart showing the school’s enrollment. Apart from a bump in 2008, when the district absorbed pupils from the closure of Mammoth School inside Yellowstone, the trend since the mid-90s mine closure was clearly heading down, dipping below 200 students for the first time in memory the past three years.

“This is some serious food for thought,” Bumann wrote. “What does this say about the town’s accessibility to families, our housing and school funding options?”

"Is this going to be a town of locals or not?"

 

As they have in destination towns across the West, Airbnb and their “live like a local” marketing has eroded what was once a clearer distinction between residential and tourist housing. When Gardiner property owners face the choice between renting a house to a full-time resident for $1,000 a month or offering it to tourists for upwards of $250 a night, it’s tough to leave the difference on the table—particularly when would-be-landlords are trying to scrape together a living themselves.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that between 50 and 150 of Gardiner’s 600 housing units are vacant, an indicator they’re used for tourist housing. Airbnb’s website alone listed 25 full-home rentals in the town proper, pre-tourism season in April, their nightly rates averaging $278.

“You can make more in a week than you can in a month,” said Don Knight, a Gardiner businessman who operates Cowboy’s Lodge and a number of vacation rentals.

Like most of the town’s business owners, Knight and his wife, Gina, say they have to provide housing to attract employees. In addition to vacation rentals, they also point at rising property taxes—partly a product of higher property values—as something that’s making the town less affordable even for residents who own their own home.

About half of the Gardiner homes advertised for sale on real estate websites in April were priced above $600,000. One of them, a boxy-looking, 2,760-square-foot house on Park Street, was listed as pending sale at $749,000.

In comparison, annual wages across Park County average $43,000 a year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. The average hotel and food service worker is paid $23,000.

“Prices don’t reflect local wages at all,” said Bill Berg, a Park County commissioner who’s lived in the Gardiner area for 30 years.

“It almost feels like we’re becoming a little bit of a theme park,” he said. “Is this going to be a town of locals or not?”

"When you think of a functioning town that is sustainable into the future, there are basic services and amenities that are required for that to be possible. After we lose those pieces, it’s hard to get them back."

 

The sentiment echoes up and down the Rockies. In nearby Bozeman, tourism, a growing technology sector and booming enrollment at Montana State University have pushed detached home prices to a $398,000 median and spurred a wave of ritzy downtown development. As non-tech wages fall behind the means brought in by out-of-state transplants, residents worry over Friday afternoon microbrews that their quaint mountain town is becoming a playground for the rich.

Up Gallatin Canyon in housing-crunched Big Sky, the Census Bureau estimates 1,600 workers commute in to do their jobs—nearly five times the number who both live and work in town. South of the park in Jackson, Wyoming, the median home price is more than eight times the median income, eclipsing the three-times-income threshold its town government considers a benchmark for housing affordability.

Even so, for the stretches of the Northern Rockies where a scenery economy hasn’t fully taken root, local leaders often see boosting tourism as the best way to give their communities a future. In timber towns dogged by mill closures, and farm towns where populations have waned with mechanized agriculture, enticing more visitors to come through and spend money often seems like the last, best economic hope.

Sen. Tester, a farmer from Big Sandy in north-central Montana, points out that tourism is a multi-billion dollar industry statewide. He said in an interview that there’s opportunity to boost visitation in more places across the state, such as along the upper Missouri River.

The key, Tester said, is making sure tourism has the right infrastructure around it—workforce housing included. He pointed to a federal program that uses tax credits to subsidize affordable housing projects, and touted a banking regulation relief bill he’s supported as a way to make it easier for Montana banks to offer loans to builders and home buyers.

“If there’s no place for people to live, you can’t develop the infrastructure,” Tester said.

Worried about their housing stock, Greater Yellowstone municipalities like Jackson and Bozeman have taken action to regulate vacation rentals, using their zoning powers in an effort to limit them to particular neighborhoods. But Gardiner, like Big Sky, isn’t formally incorporated, meaning it doesn’t have a governing body or planning department with the power to enact land use regulations. And, in any case, turning to government fiat to solve problems doesn’t really square with the Old West do-what-you-will-with-your-property ethos many residents hold dear.

And a Jackson-style approach to resort community management is nothing if not hands on when it comes to government planning. The 10,000-resident town and its county government have staffed joint long-range planning and housing departments and adopted a 400-page community plan that calls for more subsidized housing. Each year, Jackson’s planners compile an “indicator report” tracking progress toward specific goals like having 65 percent of its workers living locally.

“We want to be a community first, a resort second,” said April Norton, Jackson’s housing director. “I feel really proud that our community is willing to have those conversations.”

Gardiner residents did vote to enact their 3-percent seasonal resort tax in 2014, creating a locally administered pool of funding that can be used on projects like school repairs. Last fall, they also started a nonprofit to raise money for supporting the school, the North Yellowstone Education Foundation.

Additionally, the Gardiner Chamber of Commerce has focused its efforts on marketing the town as a wildlife watching destination for shoulder seasons and winter, when things are slow enough that many of its businesses shut down, said chamber director Loren Barrett. Getting the town’s economy to the point where visitation sees less of a seasonal swing, she and others said, could make it easier to make ends meet.

As Gardiner School gets emptier, though, it’s facing a budget crisis—the product of both its enrollment decline and shifts in how Montana, Wyoming and the National Park Service allocate funding to a district that also serves families in Yellowstone. Bumann, the school board member, worries the district could be forced to part ways with some of the programs and people that have earned it a gold-medal ranking.

“When you think of a functioning town that is sustainable into the future, there are basic services and amenities that are required for that to be possible,” he said. “After we lose those pieces, it’s hard to get them back.”

It’s tough to avoid the conclusion that for rural America, economics is destiny. If small towns are going to remain viable communities that deserve their spot in the national consciousness—if they’re going to offer visitors the experience to live like locals—they have to give their residents the opportunity to make a decent living.

While tourism can provide prosperity without the environmental consequences that often accompany natural resource industries like logging or mining, Gardiner and its vacation-rental headache show that the scenery economy comes with its own set of tradeoffs. And those are challenges that take more than a gun-toting cowboy to tackle.

A Missoula-based journalist, Eric Dietrich’s work focuses on the future of Montana communities like Gardiner. He was educated as a civil engineer at Montana State University in Bozeman, and learned the craft of reporting at the Great Falls Tribune and Bozeman Daily Chronicle newspapers. In his spare time, he hikes, programs websites and looks for excuses to visit small towns.