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Montana's Wide-Open Spaces Getting A Bit Crowded

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One of the nation's least densely populated states has hit a major milestone. Montana's population crossed over the 1 million person mark around the first of the year. While the governor says that's a good sign for the future, some residents say the state's already too crowded.

Fewer than 2,000 people live in Townsend, Mont., a small farming community surrounded by national forests and just south of the gigantic Canyon Ferry Reservoir.

At Penny's Breakfast Station, cook Amber Burchett fries up hash browns in the early afternoon.

"It's about an average Sunday, we get pretty busy after the church crowd," she says.

Penny's serves as a regular gathering place for residents like 86-year-old Dorothy Hahn, who's lived in Townsend most of her life.

"Since 1943," she says. For Hahn, 1 million Montanans is too many.

"Oh, that's a lot of people for Montana," she says, "'cause we got a lot of wide-open spaces."

And she wants it to stay that way. "I don't like big cities at all, I like small towns," she says.

Nearby, youth group leader Carrie Driver doesn't mince words on her view of newcomers.

"Go back where you came from, pretty much!" Driver jokes. "Especially if you're coming from California or these other states and they buy up secondary houses that they don't even use, and then expect that they can come in and tell us how we need to run ours because they live here two months out of the year."

The state's entire population grew about 10 percent over the last decade, but those million Montanans are stretched over an area bigger than New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Rhode Island combined. The density is fewer than seven people per square mile.

"We're not crowded by any stretch of the imagination," Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer says.

"Now, I did see a bumper sticker in Great Falls last week," he says. "It said, 'Montana is full. We hear there's still room in North Dakota.'"

As for himself, Schweitzer likes the million-person figure.

"This gives us an opportunity for more jobs, more opportunities for our children and grandchildren, so I guess it's progress," he says.

Back at Penny's Breakfast Station, Randy Brown is finishing up his coffee. He runs a concrete company in Townsend and says population equals construction.

"In my business, it makes me feel good," he says, "because there's people moving in, and that means they want houses or they'll buy something that needs to be repaired or add a garage to it."

More Montanans might mean more business for him and for Penny's. Just don't be surprised if you have to wait in line on Sundays.

Copyright 2012 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.mtpr.org.

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