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Column: The real Libby … you should go see it

by Bill SchneiderNewWest.net
| September 23, 2009 12:00 AM

When you hear the word, Libby, what do you think?

Not good, eh?

The micropolis of far northwestern Montana makes a lot of headlines, but it seems like it’s never good news.

When I bring up the subject down at the coffee shop or taproom, most people start talking about asbestos, the corporate greed of W.R. Grace, and people gradually dying because of it .. or about a remote timber town swamped in the wake of the implosion of the wood products industry, closed mills, unemployed loggers … or about red-necked, AR-15-toting, arch-conservatives hiding out in remote cabins, driving around in camo-colored Jeeps, scouring the skies for black helicopters … or an Appalachia-esque community fraught with economic despair that doesn’t welcome outsiders.

Well, this summer, I made two trips to Libby, had a fantastic time on both, and one morning, sitting down at the Libby Café, savoring a stack of huckleberry flapjacks and saying something to my cycling buddy about it being one of the best breakfasts I ever had, I decided to write this commentary. It’s hard to change an image once the media establishes it for you, but I’m going to do my part to set the record straight.

When you turn onto the main street of Libby, you get an instant tip-off that times are a changin’. Perched above you is a stunning sculpture of a bald eagle spreading its wings and announcing to all comers that you’ve entered the City of Eagles.

The sculptor, local school teacher, Todd Berget, has been busy with his welding torch. As you drive around town you see more of his mastery – at least two more majestic eagles, a giant fishing rod and rainbow trout over Libby Creek, a historic logging truck, and more. He’s also done several murals. Libby, in fact, has more public art than any town I’ve ever seen – and gorgeous stuff, I might add.

And a lot of real eagles, too, incidentally.

Local officials coined this brand three years ago, and to me, it’s not only a stroke of genius but it also foreshadows the future of Libby. The City of Eagles has a better chance of developing an outdoor recreation-based economy than most communities in the new West.

“It’s something that’s just unfolding,” Dusti Thompson, executive director of the Libby Area Chamber of Commerce, told NewWest.Net . “We live right here in nature’s playground, so why not do it?”

Many communities in the new West try to bill themselves as an outdoor recreation mecca, but few have a chance of pulling it off because they don’t have the natural resources Libby does. Tucked between the craggy, snow-topped Cabinet Mountains to the south and the gentle, forest-topped Purcell Mountains to the north, surrounded by millions of acres of national forests sprinkled with remote trout-filled lakes and streams, a trail system ripe for hiking and mountain biking, a system of paved and unpaved roads left behind by timber industry now ideal for cycling, some of the best hunting and fishing left anywhere, almost all it on public lands, and of course, a big beautiful river runs through all of it.

The mighty Kootenai River flows right through Libby, in fact, and 16 miles upstream, the last big dam built in America, Libby Dam, 422 feet high, backs up a 90-mile reservoir that goes all the way up into British Columbia. It’s good fishing and fantastic boating, but when I rode my bicycle around it, I only saw two or three boats all day, a bit different than not-nearly-as-scenic Canyon Ferry Reservoir near my home in Helena where I can see 50 boats at a time.

Ditto for the river below the dam, a terrific tailwater fishery that gave up the state-record rainbow trout. I fished the river two days and didn’t see another drift boat – almost unbelievable for a guy used to fishing the Missouri, which is choked with an armada of drift boats every summer day.

I like to see local chambers promote outdoor recreation as a source of economic recovery, but in Libby’s case, it might happen naturally. Already is, in fact.

“We now have people coming in looking for hiking packages, fishing information, stuff like that,” Thompson notes. “Normally, people would drive right through looking for Glacier Park, but now people are staying here a few days exploring what we have.”

I say expect a lot more of this to happen because when people find out what Libby has to offer, they’ll come back, as I plan to, and who knows? In a few years, the locals will be talking about trying to manage runaway growth.

Today, in the Internet age, you just can’t keep something like this secret for long, and now, obviously, the word is out on Libby and the Kootenai Country of northwestern Montana. Travelers grow weary of driving congested highways to get to congested recreation sites, and they’re always searching for something much less “discovered,” like Kootenai Country.

And then there’s the myth about the people of Libby all being unfriendly if not dangerous survivalist wackos. That’s a real laugher. Not much could be farther from the truth. Check it out yourself. It won’t take long to see the other Libby and meet the real people who live there – friendlier than you find in most communities I’d say, and I get around.

Actually, it seems to me that many locals who have spent their whole lives fishing and hunting and enjoying the incredible natural resources of the area sort of take it for granted and don’t even know how good they have it, let alone realize how valuable it all can be, economically. With more elk than people per square mile, northwestern Montana has something most communities have only in their dreams.

Yeah, you see a little economic despair, a few boarded up buildings here and there, but where don’t you see the same? And I sure didn’t see anybody wallowing in it, nor did I see anything remotely close to the image the media has made, albeit unintentionally, for this community.

Instead, when I’m driving around town, bicycling the nearly deserted roadways, floating the river, hiking the trails, watching the eagles, or simply sitting on a rock by one of the waterfalls and listening to river music, I see the Other Libby, the Real Libby. You should go see it, too.

(Bill Schneider has written 20 books and several magazine articles on wildlife, outdoor recreation and environmental issues. He authored this piece on Libby for NewWest.net and granted permission for it to be re-printed in The Western News).