Businessmen and women, whose financial livelihood was severely impacted by the eastside closure of Glacier National Park last tourist season, met in person and via teleconference to ask the Glacier County Commissioners to support the safe re-opening of Glacier National Park for the 2021 season. Business owners Sanford Stone and Nathan St. Goddard appeared in person with several others calling in to the meeting, which was held in Cut Bank on March 2.
Stone stressed one of the business owners’ main concerns was the lack of communication from county officials. “We’ve been in the dark for a year,” he said, adding, that “after 12 months” business owners are “asking for a discussion…we just want communication.”
St. Goddard, whose family-owned business, Johnson’s of St. Mary, hopes to open for its 71st year, stated, “It’s really, really tough if we don’t know what’s going on and we get no support.”
The Blackfeet Tribal Business Council was scheduled to meet with Glacier National Park (GNP) Superintendent Jeff Mow on Thursday, March 4, to discuss a safe reopening of GNP in 2021. Glacier County Commission Chair Mary Jo Bremner said she invited herself to the meeting. “I’ll give voice to your concerns,” said Bremner, “that’s all I can promise you.” Bremner said she would attend the BTBC meeting after the Commissioner meeting scheduled that same day.
On Monday, March 8, Stone offered, “We are very hopeful that after a year in the dark that there will soon be an agreed upon plan for the safe reopening of the eastern entrances. If there is no way to safely reopen the park or lodging facilities, that’s fine, but we hope that everyone in charge of that decision will figure out how to do it legally and support shuttered small businesses moving forward.”
During the discussion on March 2, Stone repeatedly asked for clarification and confirmation on who was representing Glacier County in the ongoing discussions with Supt. Mow and the Blackfeet Tribe regarding the reopening of GNP. Stone said GNP officials claim they are in discussions with County officials. While there have been some conversations, Bremner confirmed there haven’t been any in a public meeting.
Glacier County DES Coordinator Lanaina Upham attends the Blackfeet COVID-19 Incident Command meetings on behalf of Glacier County, said Commissioner John Overcast.
“We’ve been in the dark for year now,” said Stone.
Commissioner Michael DesRosier expressed concern that tourism-related businesses hire “summer workers from different countries” rather than local employees. He stated he doesn’t see the business owners in the churches, grocery stores or out in the community, which made him question the impact these businesses have on the local economy.
Kimberly D. Boy, MBA, Director of the Dept. of Revenue for the Blackfeet Tribe, was on hand to answer questions and offer input. Boy pointed out she has been “an advocate” for the businesses and realizes “there has been an economic impact” due to the closure of Glacier National Park and the Reservation due to COVID-19. She agreed with DesRosier regarding the trickle-down effect from the tourism-related businesses, noting “a lot does not come back to our community…”
“I understand, but that’s not me,” said Stone, adding there are numerous other small business owners like himself and his wife, Claire, who own Park Cabin Company in Babb, who shop local, employ local and support the local and area communities.
“I’m trying to not be part of the 90% unemployment,” said St. Goddard, who is a Blackfeet Tribal Member and lifelong county resident. “We hire all we can locally, but a lot of times it doesn’t work out.” He stated the job opportunities are there, especially now. Due to the pandemic, he believes locals will have the chance to hold those jobs previously held by foreigners or out-of-staters at businesses in the GNP area.
DesRosier reminded those at the meeting that 37 tribal members on the Reservation and 48 overall have died from COVID. The businesses still have the potential to recover their financial loss, said DesRosier. “The economic impact is not as powerful as the loss of lives.”
St. Goddard responded there is a stigma felt by those small businesses wanting to move forward that they are “insensitive” to the potential health impact and/or deaths that have resulted from the pandemic. That’s not the case, he stated, adding, “We’re going to be living with COVID” and it is imperative that all entities work together to reopen GNP in 2021.
St. Goddard shared a statistic that one to three non-COVID related deaths occurs on the Blackfeet Reservation per week as a result of suicide, alcohol-related crashes, mental health issues, drug abuse, murder, etc. “We’re not trying to shut down for that. Anheuser Busch has been killing us for 100 years,” he stated.
Commissioner Overcast replied, “I like some of the stats you have. I know where you’re coming from.”
St. Goddard interjected, “I had a little cousin who was 11-years-old who killed herself.”
“Exactly, and we didn’t shut the businesses down. It’s a two-edged sword…” said Overcast.
“Suicide isn’t contagious,” interrupted DesRosier.
St. Goddard raised the question of businesses staying open if there is an outbreak in an unrelated community of the Reservation or GNP. “If we open can we stay open? We all want to move forward with normalcy and I don’t think opening up doesn’t mean safety out the window.”
Boy concurred, adding once a business’s safety and compliance plan is approved, the Tribe will be putting its faith in the business to follow those safety protocols. “I’ve been advocating for businesses,” said Boy, adding “but some of the actual decision makers aren’t on board.”
In concluding, St. Goddard asked the Commissioners to be more sensitive to affected business owners when they hear the mantra, “We’re all in this together…” He questioned, “But are we?”
He stated when the Blackfeet Tribe, Browning Schools, Blackfeet Community College and Glacier County were all shutdown, everyone still got paid. “I’m not getting paid.” He reminded the Commissioners, “If you have a business and you solely rely on that business and you’re shut down, you’re done.”
John Ray, a former Glacier County Commissioner and East Glacier business owner, asked if the county could provide financial relief to affected businesses by forgiving back taxes for 2019 and 2020. County officials were doubtful, but said they would look into it. Ray said both the State of Montana and the Blackfeet Tribe want him to pay taxes, even though his business was shutdown.
Noel Stewart called for unity and cooperation to help reopen businesses to full operation. Susan Higgins questioned whether out-of-state employees would have access to COVID-19 vaccinations and asked for an additional law enforcement presence for those individuals not complying with the guidelines in place to safely reopen and stay open.
Claire Stone requested the Commissioners work with the county-funded Glacier County Regional Port Authority to develop a business survey to assess the needs and economic impact of the pandemic. She also “respectfully disagreed” with DesRosier’s comment about business owners being seen out in the community, pointing out many of them are like her and her husband who work 24/7 during May to September at their business.
In concluding the discussion, Bremner stated, “We’ll certainly express those opinions to the Tribal Council and try to see if we can find a place to work with them.”
The issue of jurisdiction came up several times during the meeting, with Stone and St. Goddard–who are also attorneys–and Glacier County Attorney Terryl Matt expressing differing opinions on the issue.