It also is a cradle for sometimes-violent anti-government activity — a reputation most recently rekindled by the search for David Burgert. The former Kalispell militia leader is accused of opening fire on sheriff’s deputies on a remote logging road in Lolo National Forest.
After a lull following the demise of the Idaho-based neo-Nazi Aryan Nations in 2000, anti-government and white supremacist groups and individuals may be reviving in the Inland Northwest. It’s a mostly white, mostly rural area with few job opportunities and a history of extreme activists.
Experts say the number of radical right groups is growing across the country because of the poor state of the economy, rising immigration and fears that President Barack Obama’s administration has an agenda to curtail individual liberties.
They include so-called patriot groups, which fear one-world government and don’t accept the federal government’s authority. And they like northwest Montana because there is no dominant major city. It also has a deep libertarian streak and live-and-let-live attitude, said Travis McAdam, executive director of the Helena-based Montana Human Rights Network, an anti-hate group.
“A lot of anti-government energy has been building up over the last couple of years,” McAdam said.
Sometimes the energy boils over.
Burgert is accused of firing shots at Missoula County sheriff’s deputies June 12 before he disappeared into the Lolo National Forest. Burgert is a longtime “patriot activist” who spent eight years in prison on weapons charges — he had a machine gun when he was arrested — and U.S. authorities charged him at the time with trying to spark a revolution. He was released in 2010.
“He harbors great animosity for law enforcement and government in general,” Missoula County Sheriff Carl Ibsen said.
In January, an attempt was made in Spokane to bomb the city’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade. The bomb was found and disarmed before it could explode. The FBI called it an act of domestic terrorism that could have killed and injured many people.
White supremacist Kevin Harpham has been charged in the case and could face life in prison. His trial begins in August.
A patriot group called Flathead Liberty Bell held a convention just last weekend, featuring right-wing speakers and sale of survival gear for what organizers believe is a coming showdown with federal authorities. It was a flashback to the 1990s, when groups like the Militia of Montana regularly held such expos, McAdam said.
The number of hate groups and patriot groups, which do not all share beliefs and conduct, has been growing across the country since Obama was elected in 2008, according to an annual report by the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., which tracks extremist groups and individuals.
“Montana is developing into a hotbed,” said Mark Potok, director of the SPLC Intelligence Project.
SPLC’s 2010 compilation of active hate groups found 1,002 nationwide, with no more than 12 in the Inland Northwest between Missoula and Spokane.
Area residents complain hate group activities here seem to draw more attention than they do in other regions of the country.
“We have a small population, so they get noticed more,” said Travis Suzuki, a 22-year-old Missoula college student.
“We feel very safe around here,” said Kalispell Mayor Tammi Fisher, who said there is no indication tourism has been hurt by the presence of these groups, or that government employees have been threatened.
A fast-growing city of 20,000 hemmed in by the Rocky Mountains and Flathead Lake, Kalispell has a strong tourist industry thanks to its lakes, golf courses and ski resorts, and it’s a major gateway to Glacier National Park.
Montana developed a reputation as a place for violent extremists in the mid-1990s with the capture of “Unabomber” Theodore Kaczynski and a standoff involving a patriot group called the Montana Freemen.
The Unabomber was the FBI code name for Kaczynski, who engaged in a mail bombing spree that spanned nearly 20 years, killing three people. He was living near Lincoln, Mont., when he was arrested in 1996.
The Montana Freemen were a Christian Patriot group based outside the town of Jordan. Members expressed belief in individual sovereignty and in 1996 engaged in an 81-day armed standoff with the FBI before surrendering.
Some of the more well-known figures in the anti-government movement are re-emerging in the Kalispell area, according to news reports and the SPLC.
They include former Aryan Nations member Karl Gharst, who last year screened a movie, “Epic: The Story of the Waffen SS,” at the Kalispell library. The showing drew 200 protesters.
White supremacist April Goede and her twin daughters — who once formed the racist pop singing group Prussian Blue — have moved to Kalispell.
Others include patriot leader and former Constitution Party vice presidential candidate Chuck Baldwin, who believes the U.S. is headed for a fight between big-government globalists and independent patriots; Stewart Rhodes, founder of Oath Keepers, which wants law enforcement officers and military personnel to sign an oath against a one-world government conspiracy; and Randy Weaver, whose standoff with federal marshals at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992 kick-started the modern patriot movement.
Fisher said the Kalispell community does have its limits, as Gharst found out when he showed the pro-Nazi movie. But groups espousing their own views on government are tolerated.