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Hi-Line Region Population & Economics, Page 1

Old Grain Elevation on the Hi-Line
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The Montana Hi-Line region is a place of contrasts, of solitude and of scenic beauty. And as the Hi-Line has seen little in the way of growth over the past years, in some ways, a trip along the Hi-Line resembles a trip back in-time. Many of the towns along the Hi-Line look no different now than they did 40 or more years ago. And perhaps that is why I like the Montana Hi-Line region. Unlike other areas of the state, that have either been heavily developed, over-run by tourists or have been converted into sprawling subdivisions built with out-of-state money, the Montana Hi-Line region has been essentially forgotten.

The Hi-Line region of Montana is not alone in being passed over by the relentless pace of development that has arisen throughout most of the United States the past several decades. Indeed, that lack of not being the only forgotten place is one of the biggest challenges the Hi-Line region faces. Few people realize that today more than sixty counties in the Great Plains of the United States have fewer residents now than they did in 1930. In essence, not only has the Hi-Line region been passed over by the torrid pace of development seen elsewhere, a vast swath of the heartland has met a similar fate. Numerous counties in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, eastern Colorado, and the Dakotas all share in this peculiar shift of people and resources away from the high plains to other areas of the United States.

The results of this shift in population and resources are obvious to see. Countless farms and ranch buildings now lay vacant across the Great Plains of the United States. The homes are dormant, the outbuildings are falling down, yet the land around them is fertile and in production, having been bought out by nearby farms and ranches. This is the process of agricultural consolidation; an event that began during the 1930’s and has been continuing ever since. The process of agricultural consolidation arose due to the inability of small farms and ranches to compete with first their larger neighbors, and then their inability to compete on the world agricultural market. The smaller farms were sold or abandoned, while the land these farms and ranches were on was bought – keeping the land itself in production.

Another factor at play in the decline of the number of people in the farm and ranch business is the miracle of agriculture productivity. Decades ago, agriculture was still a labor-intensive business. Significant pools of labor were required to do what one person with a modern tractor can do today. The dramatic increase in productivity in the agricultural industry allows fewer people to harvest more land.

Downtown Harlem, Montana
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This duo combination of vastly improved agricultural productivity, combined with the ever-increasing sizes of the farms and ranches, has been the great contributor to the loss of population in the Great Plains over the past decades. Yet this only tells part of the tale on why most areas of the Great Plains have been losing population.

The other part of the story is seen in the numerous small towns across the Montana Hi-Line region and elsewhere in the Great Plains. As the farms and ranches become larger, and require fewer people to operate, the nearby towns have often suffered terribly. This is because most of the small towns in the Great Plains rely almost solely on the agricultural economy for their prosperity. The consolidation in the agricultural industry, combined with the productivity miracle, has created a nasty cycle of having fewer people involved in the agricultural economy. This loss of people then leads to less demand for local businesses, most of whom are directly dependant, one way or another, on the agricultural economy. Virtually every business in an agricultural small town has been affected by this change, ranging from auto-dealers, to restaurants, to banks, to grain elevators, to barbers, to hotels and a whole host of other businesses.

This process is nothing more than the free market, brutal as it may be at times, at work. As the number of people who are involved in farm and ranch operations has shrunk, there are thus fewer and fewer people in the area who require everything from haircuts, cattle feed, hardware supplies, tractor parts and new automobiles. As such, the towns that sprung up in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s to provide goods and services to the farms and ranches outside of town have, essentially, lost much of the demand for these goods and services that use to exist. And the result has been struggling small towns throughout most regions of the Great Plains of the United States. And the Hi-Line area of Montana has been no exception to this.

Population of Montana Hi-Line Counties Since 1920

To put things a bit in perspective, it’s worth examining the population of several counties in the Hi-Line region over the years.

County 1920 1930 1940 1950 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2010
Blaine 9057 9006 9566 8516 8091 6727 6999 6728 7009 6491
Glacier 4178 5297 9034 9645 11,565 10,783 10,628 12,121 13,247 13,399
Hill 13,958 13,775 13,304 14,285 18,653 17,358 17,985 17,654 16,673 16,096
Liberty 2416 2198 2209 2180 2624 2359 2329 2295 2158 2339
Phillips 9311 8208 7892 6334 6027 5386 5367 5163 4601 4253
Roosevelt 10,347 10,672 9806 9580 11,731 10,365 10,467 10,999 10,620 10,425
Toole 3724 3714 6769 6867 7904 5839 5559 5046 5267 5324
Valley 11,542 11,181 15,181 11,353 17,080 11,471 10,250 8239 7675 7369

Major Towns in each county
Blaine County : Chinook
Glacier County : Cut Bank, Browning
Hill County : Havre
Liberty County : Chester
Phillips County : Malta
Roosevelt County : Culbertson, Wolf Point
Toole County : Shelby, Sunburst
Valley County : Glasgow, Fort Peck

As the statistics show, some counties have been hit harder by population loss than others. Valley County and Phillips County, in particular, have been especially hard hit. Meanwhile, thanks to its proximity to Glacier National Park, the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, and a boost from the oil and gas industry, Glacier County has actually increased population at a decent clip. Hill County has also done reasonably well, helped out by the development in Havre, the largest town on the Montana Hi-Line.

As such, throughout the Hi-Line region of Montana, the results of this shift in population and resources are plain to see. Numerous downtowns in the Hi-Line area of Montana are seemingly half empty – full of closed down and abandoned stores, abandoned grain elevators and homes. Even in counties that have not lost population there are many abandoned buildings, stores and farms. This is generally due to the decline in the smaller agricultural towns of the county that coincide with a rise of population in the county seat.

Next Page : Population & Economics, Page 2

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