Northern Rockies Successful Communities

assess > envision > plan > act

The mountainous portions of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho are widely regarded as the wildest landscape in the lower 48 states. The Northern Rockies are home to iconic national parks and wilderness areas.

The region is also home to several fast growing cities and an array of small towns nestled in the fields, ranches, and wide open spaces that make up the landscape. Helping those communities find success while maintaining their beauty and charm has been our passion for decades.

Future West works to realize a future where communities have a shared sense of place, robust economies, and sound stewardship of natural, cultural, and community assets. 

Future West helps communities identify, choose, and achieve their desired future. We would like to share our thoughts on the region and how communities can move forward, building a durable prosperity that connects economics, character, and the environment.

The Northern Rockies region is an archipelago of cities, towns, ranches, and homes spread across three states and 160,000 square miles of sagebrush, forests, and alpine peaks.

The Northern Rockies region is characterized by a mosaic of extensive public lands and interspersed with large parcels of rural private lands primarily dedicated to ranching, farming, and areas of scattered subdivisions. Small rural communities, many located in river valleys, dot the landscape and serve as commercial centers for agriculture, extractive industry, outdoor recreation, and other rural economies.

Because of the intact nature of most of its public and private lands, the Northern Rockies have become the focus of many conservation initiatives. Most of these are focused on preserving public lands and promoting the sound stewardship and ecological restoration of private lands.

Land trusts, watershed councils, conservation groups, and private lands stewards work to conserve a mosaic of public and private lands that support rural livelihoods, wildlife, ecosystem services, and outdoor recreation.

But few of these efforts focus on engaging local communities on issues related to community well-being, economic development, and growth.

Local economic development organizations operate on a largely separate track from conservation efforts; they focus on keeping storefronts open, increasing revenue from traditional sources and bringing jobs and services into communities. The result is that within the Northern Rockies, there are often many separate visions competing for the imagination of residents, and very few forums for them to find common ground.

In the past, these differing visions have been manifested vividly as struggles between development and conservation. And while those divisions still exist, they are not static. Underlying economies shift, forcing entire industries to innovate or close their doors.

Among those shifts is the growth of knowledge economies, remote workers, and an increasing appetite for outdoor recreation opportunities. This economic trend is fueling rapid growth in places like Whitefish, Driggs, and Jackson Hole. 

The growth and change occurring in larger cities like Missoula, Bozeman, and Boise is also bringing change to rural landscapes and main streets.

Unfortunately, many of the smaller communities of the Northern Rockies do not have the articulated vision and capacity required to channel this change into the future they want. 

Communities that catch the eye of developers are vulnerable to ad-hoc projects that often reflect the developer's goals and ability, instead of community character. If growth isn't guided by a strong community vision and local capacity, the results can feel disjointed and fail to connect with the community's underlying authenticity.

Many communities in the Northern Rockies are on a knife edge between economic stagnation and some type of alienating development. 

Future West wants to change that...

...because growth shouldn't be a roll of the dice.

What if the rural communities of the Northern Rockies could create the future they want? 
Instead of reacting to development and shifting economic winds, what if communities had the tools to design that future, laying the groundwork for the development that they want to see in their own community?

The fact is that they do. It has been done before. Future West staff have been involved in conservation and community development in the region since the 1990's. Their work was premised on the belief that communities would greatly benefit by citizens coming together to identify shared values and create a shared vision for the future that clearly stated what people wanted to conserve, and what they wanted to change.

Citizens groups like the Beartooth Front Community Forum in Red Lodge, MT and Salmon Valley Stewardship in Salmon, ID did just that.

These local organizations continue to strive to bridge divisive issues, crafting and shepherding strong community visions through the booms, busts, and catalytic moments that sweep through every town in the Northern Rockies.

Northern Rockies Successful Communities would like to help you do the same for your community. Here's how it works...

1. The first step is building a team that understands the forces shaping your community.

What makes your community what it is today? 

Northern Rockies Successful Communities starts with a dive into the numbers and stories that underpin your community, working with a broad cross section of key local leaders, many of whom may later form a core team that leads the process. In addition to guiding the core team, this exercise will serve as the basis for a community profile that will inform the visioning, issue identification, design charettes, and action planning phases of the partnership.

Economic analyses address the big questions of how money and resources flow in and out of your community. Which sectors are growing? Which are shrinking? How do the local numbers stack up to the rest of the state, or similar communities in other states?

Demographics can help unpack migration and aging trends in your population. Public health analyses and GIS mapping can help your community overcome barriers for assets like walkability, trails, or access to healthcare and healthy food. Reviews of natural resources and cultural assets also provide important context for successful vision statements, action plans, and catalyst projects.

Growth scenarios can help citizens understand the implications of potential future land use patterns. The Envision Tomorrow software, for example, allows users to create various plausible growth scenarios and calculates their impacts on community taxes, agricultural land, carbon footprint, affordable housing, and many other variables.

2. The second step is crafting (or reaffirming) a grounded vision that captures the imagination of your community.

The visioning portion of a Northern Rockies Successful Communities process occurs in your community over two to three days and builds upon the economic, environmental, and cultural analyses completed earlier. Visioning and action planning workshops vary from community to community, but most focus on four goals:

~ Inform the community about its past, present and future: the socio-economic, demographic, and physical trends that document the story;

~ Develop community consensus on the future it desires; 

~ Articulate a detailed and prioritized action plan for achieving that vision, with intermediate targets and strategic sequences;

~ Consolidate a committed team, capable of carrying projects forward and maintaining clear chains of accountability.

3. The third step is catalyzing the process through decisive and successful projects.


Catalytic projects can be as big as a new public event space ...or as small as a local signage project.

Success breeds success: catalytic projects (large or small) can bridge your core values and build community confidence and buy-in.

We believe that the best way to create the growth you want is through successful, community-led, widely supported, tangible on-the-ground projects. 

Northern Rockies Successful Communities can provide the follow-up guidance and assistance needed to make these projects happen.

Catalyst projects can be as big as a trail system, a business incubator, or downtown beautification; they can be as small as a homegrown signage project or a mural on the side of a building.  

The important thing is that they manifest the community vision and connect today's economic realities – and opportunities - with the key natural and cultural threads that bind your community.

If you're interested in exploring a Northern Rockies Successful Communities partnership in your community, drop a line...

WWW.FUTURE-WEST.ORG  (406) 587-2974

Future West works to realize a future where communities have a shared sense of place, robust economies, and sound stewardship of natural, cultural, and community assets.