The invasion of the pine bark beetles has changed the vacation experience in some parts of western Montana and the Black Hills of South Dakota. Many visitors this past summer found familiar vistas transformed and roads to campgrounds and popular attractions temporarily closed by fallen trees. But so far, the epidemic hasn’t had any measurable impact on visitation to either region, according to official tourism figures.
Densely forested western Montana drives the Treasure State’s tourism industry. Yet there’s no apparent beetle effect on Montana’s visitation numbers. Preliminary figures from the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research show that in the first half of this year the state attracted 4.1 million travelers from other states, a 5 percent increase over the same period last year. Tourist visits also increased year over year in 2011 after two consecutive years of heavy beetle activity.
In the Black Hills, an intensifying beetle infestation “hasn’t turned off visitors,” said Nort Johnson, president of the Black Hills, Badlands and Lakes Tourism Association. “It was a great spring and great early summer, and that’s continued.” Early warm weather boosted motel occupancy and visits to attractions and special events, according to association figures; Mount Rushmore saw 8 percent more visitors through July of this year than in the first seven months of 2011, and traffic counts for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in August were up 5 percent over last year’s tally.
Tourism in the Black Hills could feel the beetles’ bite next year; several sources said dead or dying trees were more evident near attractions and along roads this summer—a possible deterrent to return visits. For now, tourism officials and businesses are keeping their fingers crossed and emphasizing the positive aspects of the infestation. For example, Johnson noted that some tourists have commented on “some amazing new outcroppings of rocks that we haven’t seen for a couple of generations” revealed by deforestation.