- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 6, 2008


John Kerr wasn’t dreaming of palm trees and balmy winters when he retired from WGBH, the Boston public TV station known for producing hits such as “Antiques Roadshow.” His thoughts had gone West.

The 69-year-old put on a green uniform and Smokey Bear hat and became a seasonal ranger in Yellowstone National Park, where snow can fall every month of the year, including July.

“That’s why they have wood stoves and furnaces,” Mr. Kerr says. “Warm weather isn’t the issue for me. It’s keeping vital and interested and involved.”

Demographers say thousands of people like Mr. Kerr are heading to the Rocky Mountain West in their later years. Forget the warmth of Florida and Arizona. Baby boomers, in particular, are gravitating toward the peaks and sagebrush basins of Wyoming and Montana, promising to turn those states from relatively young demographically into two of the nation’s oldest.

They’re drawn by low crime, fresh air, little traffic and abundant outdoor activities, says Larry Swanson, an economist and director of the Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Missoula, Mont.

Although people of all ages like those things, older people tend to be flexible enough in their careers, families and finances to finally kick up their boots on a porch rail, he says.

“If you’re 25, you say, ‘I’d like to live here, but maybe someday in the future,’ ” Mr. Swanson says. “But if you’re 45 or 55, the future is now.”

The populations of Montana and Wyoming are not very old. In 2000, Montana ranked 18th and Wyoming 43rd for the relative size of their 65-and-older populations. By 2030, however, the Census Bureau predicts Montana will rank fifth and Wyoming third in the nation for their over-65 populations.

Florida is expected to remain on top, though Wyoming and Montana both likely will be a good deal older than Arizona — even as the Grand Canyon State moves up from 22nd to 14th.

The two states are not seeking older people; they are being discovered.

Laurie Lyman, 55, was an elementary school teacher in San Diego when she began traveling to Yellowstone on long trips to watch wolves. In 2005, she decided it was time to get as close to the wolves as she could.

“I said to my husband, ‘You know what? Life’s too short. I’m going,’ ” she says, adding that many people like her are snapping up property around Yellowstone.

Officials with the two states are preparing for the influx. This year, Montana established a trust fund so the state’s older population will have access to health care and other essential services, even in rural areas.

“We’ve done projections of stuff and [see] our elderly population doubling in the next 10 to 15 years,” says Charlie Rehbein, chief of the Montana Aging Services Bureau. “I think it’s going to have a tremendous impact.”

One challenge is that the two states already have very low unemployment, around 3 percent, and could face a labor crunch when the oldest baby boomers hit 65 in 2011.

“We haven’t seen anything yet because the exodus has not really begun out of the work force,” says Mr. Swanson, the economist. “That’s going to begin in two or three years.”

Rather than struggle with a labor shortage, Wyoming officials hope to get older people to stay in the work force and persuade business owners to hire older workers, says Rob Black, policy analyst for Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal.

Mr. Swanson says most of the baby boomers moving in plan to work. Mr. Kerr, for example, says he will continue working — for now.

“My life hasn’t slowed down,” he says. “I’ve found a lot of sustenance — spiritual sustenance, I suppose — in the natural world. I think it helps put our fast-paced world into balance.”

Working was what Lee and Beth Dix had in mind in 1999 when they began thinking about leaving the District, where he was a systems analyst for IBM Corp. and she was a corporate planner for Fairchild Corp.

Mr. Dix, 62, says the couple researched dozens of communities in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, then flew to Denver and started driving. They ended up in Cheyenne, Wyo., the first overnight stop on their trip.

Mr. Dix says they did not even consider Florida or Arizona after sweltering in Washington.

“Except for the wind here, this is a pretty ideal place for us,” he says.

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