Montana: Last best first place?

Guest Commentary
Dwight Harriman
Yellowstone Newspapers

If you want to open doors in the Midwestern and Eastern states — whether you’re there on vacation, studying or working — say you’re from Montana. Suddenly, people look at you differently and hold you in higher regard, even awe. You aren’t just anybody — you’re from Montana.
It’s hard to pin down exactly what’s behind this phenomenon. Obviously a lot of it has to do with our unbelievable geography and wide-open spaces. We are a far-off, wild and shining country, cloaked in mystery, beauty and megafauna. There’s also the fact that not many people know Montanans. There are only 1 million of us, after all, so meeting one is kind of a cool thing.
People who haven’t visited Montana hold a stereotype of the state: It is all snow-covered mountains; it’s not quite as modern as the rest of the country; all its residents are either cowboys, ranchers or skiers; and more recently, that its political candidates are rough-and-tumble types who can body slam reporters.
They don’t know that half of Montana is rolling prairie punctuated by badlands of other-worldly beauty.
That we have a surprising number of high-tech companies here and a university — Montana State — that produces world-class scientific research.
That while there are lots of cowboys, ranchers and skiers, we are also a crazy mixture of miners and environmentalists, loggers and tree huggers, fourth-generation homesteader descendants and California refugees, and wolf haters and wolf lovers who all somehow get along.
And that in politics, we are a pretty easygoing lot most of the time.
But, employing another admirable Montana characteristic — straight talk— we will admit not all is perfect in paradise.
For starters, we can’t eat the scenery. Lots of Montanans hold down two or even three jobs just to get by. According to the latest available statistics from the Montana Department of Labor and Industry — from 2015 — we are ranked 48th in the nation for wages. Department officials say that figure is skewed somewhat by part-time jobs many Montanans hold, but it’s a sobering figure nonetheless.
And while we have abundant proof we can be as modern and as any other state, there are some chinks in our technological armor, namely internet access and broadband capability. U.S. News and World Report ranks Montana 47th in internet access. Get away from the big cities in Montana, and you can find yourself dancing around the countryside holding up your cellphone to get service, like Robin Williams in the 2006 comedy movie, “RV.”
Yes, Montana does tend to hold a spell over the eastern half of the country, and we are loath to break it. 
But having said that, we wouldn’t live anywhere else. It’s not for nothing they call Montana the Last Best Place. There really is something special about this place and its people that you won’t find anywhere else.
Meanwhile, Montanans — from individuals to businesses to legislative representatives — can play a part to fix those things that drag down our economic progress. We shouldn’t have to be 48th in wages. We shouldn’t have to have huge blank spots in our internet coverage.
It’s going to have to be a group effort, but Montana can also become the Last Best First Place.

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