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A bald eagle flies over Denton Slough. Photo by Jay Mock A bald eagle flies over Denton Slough. Photo by Jay Mock

Is the national press creating a new "Corps of Discovery" for this part of the Pacific Northwest?

     Sunset Magazine likes North Idaho, especially the Sandpoint area. It likes it so much, the magazine has recently featured Sandpoint twice, with a plug for Heron, Mont. as well. Under the media rule that if one person reports it, it must be news, Sunset’s coverage was accompanied by two more magazine stories (Outside and National Geographic) and, most recently, by a story in USA Today. The days the national media called us “bigots” and “racists,” and the jokes about lily pad soup, seem to be long gone. Instead, we’re now “the best of the West,” and a great little place to live, and the local real estate market is hotter than hot.
    Kathy Osborne is the marketing director for the Co-Op in Ponderay, but she’s often to be found wandering the aisles of the store, helping customers in need. A few weeks back she came upon an older gentleman looking confused and she asked if he needed help. “He turned to me and said the strangest thing had happened,” she said. The man, who lives in Montana near the Idaho border, was at home when a stranger appeared at his doorstep. The stranger wanted to buy ten acres of the gentleman’s land, and he wrote out a check for $80,000 on the spot. “He wasn’t interested in selling,” Kathy explained, “but he couldn’t get over the fact that someone just came up out of the blue and offered him that much money.”
    Jeanne Jackson-Heim, the director of the Selkirk Association of Realtors, says that type of interest is seen all over the area, as people read about our corner of the northwest and decide this might be just the place where they can live “away from it all.”
    “We’re continuing to see a strong market,” she said. “(The media attention) is a part of it, but we’ve also had good interest rates for so long, and that helps.” Although the Multiple Listing Service, administered by the Association of Realtors, doesn’t track demographic information on buyers, Jeanne says the anecdotal information she’s collected suggests people are coming to this area that have the resources to live here already in line – either via money from the sale of a previous home, or jobs located somewhere else that they can perform while living here.
    Currently, the median home price in the area, according to the MLS, is $148,000, which is up from $133,000 for the same period last year. While that may seem pricey to people who remember the days when the median home price hovered around $60,000, it’s a bargain compared to the national median of $192,000. “I think it would be difficult to find a home in our price range in a place that offers the amenities that we offer,” she said.
    The attraction of this area to immigrants today is much the same as it has always been – beautiful scenery, few weather extremes, and a laid-back, relaxed lifestyle when compared to bustling city life.
    In 1880 immigration to this area was well underway through the advent of the railroad, as residents sought to escape the growth over a century of settlement had brought to the East. The “Cradle of Liberty,” Boston, Mass., boasted 362,000 residents in the 1880 census; Philadelphia had almost 850,000 and New York had already reached a population of 1.2 million. By contrast, there were only about 2,500 people in that year in Missoula County, Mont. (from a portion of which Sanders County was formed in 1905) and Kootenai County, encompassing the entire Idaho Panhandle in 1880, had 517 total souls.
    By 1910 both our present day counties had been formed, and 3,713 people made their home in Sanders County. The railroad, timber and mining provided a livelihood for over 13,000 residents in Bonner County.
    Since that time, growth in Sanders County has remained fairly steady, staying around 15 to 20 percent each decade after starting out with a bang, when it grew almost 40 percent between 1910 and 1920. There was little growth from the ‘40s to the ‘50s, and a loss in residents from the ‘80s to the ‘90s, but this last decade has seen growth back at almost 20 percent, with 2000 census figures showing a little over 10,000 residents on this western end of Montana.
    In Bonner County, formed in 1907, that first decade of existence saw a decline in population of about 5 percent. In the decades that followed, population either grew or declined by less than 10 percent every ten years, except for two “boom” decades – from 1950 to 1960 and from 1990 to 2000 – when the population almost doubled in each of those ten-year periods. Since 2000, the US Census Bureau estimates Bonner County has grown by another 6 percent, with just over a 2 percent growth in Sanders County.
Cost of Living
    So what is it besides the physical setting and relatively low population density that’s attracting people to the area? In part, it’s the cost of living. Although residents of Bonner and Sanders counties can expect to pay more for food, transportation and health care than the national average, substantial savings are realized, at least for now, in housing and utility costs, leaving an overall cost of living at around 97 percent of the average paid throughout the nation.
    Although natives and long-time residents like to talk about how one “good winter” would drive out a lot of the newcomers to the area, the truth is, this portion of the country is relatively protected from weather extremes. Californians and Southerners might find winter a bit tough, but anyone from the mid-west or east coast will find our November through April season practically balmy compared to those other areas’ frigid wind chills and threatening winter blizzards. Summers also tend to be somewhat mild, with only a few days of extremely high temperatures, and only a fraction of the humidity levels other areas of the country suffer through. Mean temperatures range from 27 degrees in January to 65 degrees in July, though temperatures vary with elevation and proximity to water. The record low temperature of minus 37 degrees took place back in 1968, while the record high, 104 degrees, occurred in 1994.
    The area is also somewhat immune from natural disasters – tornados are rare, earthquakes even rarer, and hurricanes, of course, are non-existent this far from the coast. Fire, in this area where over 5 million acres of land in North Idaho alone is given over to forest, is the biggest natural threat to residents. Although every summer season is a fire season, some are worse than others. A lighter-than-normal snow pack and a dry, windy spring and summer, combined with late summer lightning storms, is a recipe for disaster locally and throughout the Northwest. The Sundance Fire, in 1967, advanced 16 miles and burned 50,000 acres in nine hours and the Great Idaho Fire of 1910 burned 3 million acres in two days. The first years of the 21st century resulted in several major fires which consumed millions of acres of forest due to long-term drought conditions.
    All that land covered in forest, along with a plethora of streams, rivers and lakes, provides habitat for an abundance of wildlife, much of which is rarely found in the mainland United States. The only herd of woodland caribou found in the lower 48 traverses a part of this area, along with a number of other threatened and endangered species: grizzly bear, wolves, the Canada lynx, bald eagles and several species of freshwater fish. Although most residents can spend a lifetime without ever seeing a grizzly or a wolf, bald eagles are as familiar as Teva sandals and area towns have often had to chase moose off of their city streets.
    The area is also enticing for those who wish to keep their hard-earned money out of the government’s pockets. In terms of the percentage of personal income that goes to state and local taxes, Idaho ranks 37th in the nation and Montana 39th, with both states burdening their residents to the tune of around 10 percent. By comparison, New York State, with the nation’s highest state and local tax burden, takes 13.3 percent of the average resident’s personal income.
    Relative safety is another plus. In terms of violent crime offenses, Idaho ranks 43rd and Montana 28th. More subjective a measure is the typical adjectives used to describe the people and places here – friendly, low-key, and the ubiquitous “small-town” feel. Volunteerism is rampant, with the result that just about every cause, be it related to health care, the arts, children or whatever else you’re likely to name has its own booster group and a community willing to fund its projects.
    You’re not likely to die as a couch potato in this area, either, as both states rank high in the percentage of people who meet the recommended level of physical activity – Idaho in the number 5 spot and Montana at number 9. That’s not such a surprise when you consider the opportunities for physical activity – from snow and water sports to hiking, organized athletics and an enormous area of appealing trails for bikers.
    The immigrants of the new millennium are not moving here for education, however, at least not according to Education Week. In Idaho, the percentage of public school students who score at or above proficiency levels on the National Association for Educational Progress tests for reading, writing and math fall between 22 and 32 percent. In Montana they do only slightly better, ranging from 22 to 37 percent. In addition, both states are given poor grades for educational “adequacy.”
    “Even with a 7.7 percent increase in funding from the previous year, Idaho ranks near the bottom of the states, with $6,221 in per-pupil expenditures for the 2000-01 school year. Only 6.9 percent of students in the state reside in districts spending at or above the national average. The state ranks 46th on the adequacy index, which considers both how many students are in districts spending at or above the national average and how far others fall below the average compared with other states,” Education Week reports. “The state spends 4 percent of its total taxable resources on education, which is above the national average.”
    Montana fares even worse. “Montana receives the second-lowest grade among the 50 states and the District of Columbia for its standards and accountability system,” they state. It’s not for lack of spending, however, as they point out that, “for the 2000-01 school year, Montana spent $7,402 per pupil, or just above the national average. The state is well above the national average for total taxable resources that are spent on education, at 4.5 percent.”
    Public education, of course, is in trouble throughout the nation. Traditional remedies such as private/church/home schooling and magnet schools, along with vouchers and charter schools, are of limited availability. On the plus side, schools are relatively small, and none yet have had to install metal detectors to prevent students from bringing weapons into the building.
    People are also not moving here to make a good living. The median family income in Idaho is only $37,930 in Idaho, with per capita income at a low $17,263. Unemployment hovers around 8 percent. In Montana, the income picture is even bleaker, with a median family income of $31,340 and a per capita income of $14,593, with almost 9 percent of the population unemployed. Nationally, the median family income is $43,014 and the per capita income is $20,710, and the national unemployment rate is averaging about 5.5 percent
    With only 15.6 people per square mile in Bonner County, and only 6.2 people per square mile in Sanders County, population is sparse compared to geographic area, which might be one factor why Montana is the most likely state in which you will die via motor vehicle. (Idaho ranks number 12.) If you want to go somewhere, it’s likely you’ll be driving there, though thankfully absent the type of traffic jams typical of most cities.
    Add it all up and it equals to a lot of good reasons why someone might want to move to Bonner County, as over half its residents have done in the last 34 years, or to western Montana, where over 50 percent of its population has been living since 1930. The biggest benefit, and the one most at risk with this newest surge in growth, is that friendly, small-town feel. It remains to be seen whether the people of this area, all immigrants at one time themselves, can absorb new people eager to experience the benefits of living here while maintaining that which makes it special.

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Author info

Landon Otis

Tagged as:

education, Sandpoint, moose, wolves, caribou, Heron, history, real estate market, grizzly bear, weather, Sunset Magazine, Outside Magazine, National Geographic, USA Today, Co-Op, Kathy Osborne, Jeanne Jackson-Heim, Selkirk Association of Realtors, cost of living, Canada Lynx, bald eagles, employment

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