Western wilderness tourism in a summer slump

Posted: Friday, July 26, 2002

HELENA, Mont. -- In most years, visitors flock to Jack Rich's ranch for a piece of Rocky Mountain paradise: horseback rides, hiking trips and fishing expeditions in scenic northwestern Montana.

But this season has been different.

Whether it's headlines about drought and fires, vacationers on tighter budgets or simply less willingness to travel since Sept. 11, business for many outfitters and guides in the West is slumping this summer.

''Throughout the Rockies we're suffering a downturn in the business. It's been a challenge,'' said Rich, a fourth-generation outfitter who runs Rich Ranch near Seeley Lake.

Many people in the wilderness travel business say visitors are unwilling to plunk down a few thousand dollars this year for a guided trip to the scenic West.

Some outfitters blame headlines over the past couple of years about wildfires burning out of control. Others say lingering drought in many states has scared off would-be river users. And most agree that Sept. 11 is playing a role.

''People just don't want to travel as far from home,'' said Grant Simonds of the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association.

Usually by March, Montana sells all of its out-of-state hunting licenses required for those taking guided hunting trips that year. This year there are more than 500 of the $1,000 licenses still left.

''Hunting and fishing are the first to go in a budget if you are having to tighten down,'' said Neal Whitney, who works in the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department licensing division.

Longer trips, such as Rich's six-day wilderness trips that can run about $1,500 per person, are being hit the hardest this summer, said the Travel Industry Association of America.

Montana river guides who sell single-day float trips down the state's trout streams say that portion of their business is still strong. But Garry Stocker of Montana Fly Goods in Helena said more out-of-state fisherman are taking to the rivers without a guide.

Guided adventure travel generates about $1 billion a year nationally, a small niche in the $545 billion travel industry, said David Brown, director of America Outdoors, a trade group for outfitters and guides based in Knoxville, Tenn.

He said the downturn is pinching the pocketbooks of wilderness guides who sometimes already work at least one other job to make ends meet.

''You're talking 4,000 to 5,000 small businesses across the country and in Alaska,'' he said. ''We don't have any Wal-Marts or anything like that in our industry.''

Dave Mills, who has been a guide on one of the West's premier rivers for 25 years, said his business on Idaho's Middle Fork of the Salmon River is even slower than during the recession of the early 1980s. Some outfitters in the region are off 50 percent from previous years, he said.

When wildfires roared through Idaho and Montana two summers ago, Colorado guide Randy Horne said people were canceling hunting and fishing trips in the northern states to book with him.

''As soon as a surrounding state has great huge fires, our phones ring off the hook,'' he said. ''They were trying to cancel trips to Idaho, Montana and were booking with us.''

This summer, massive wildfires have taken a toll in Colorado, and Horne expects customers will start looking elsewhere -- even though the fires have little effect on wildlife.

''Perception is the problem,'' he said. ''The consumer's perspective is that the fire is going to burn down the forest and the animals just won't be there.''

Montana's state tourism Web site has a section devoted to reassuring consumers that there is still plenty of timberland left after the devastating wildfires of 2000. ''Relax; your dream vacation in Montana didn't go up in smoke,'' proclaims its front page.

''Often the media images result in people thinking the entire West is ablaze,'' Brown said. ''Whenever that happens, it affects more than the immediate area. It has a significant impact.''

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