THOMPSON FALLS - The extreme northwest corner of Montana is home to some of the state's prettiest scenery, and, according to the Associated Press' 2011 Economic Stress Index, its ugliest economies.
The index, which measures the combined unemployment, bankruptcy and foreclosure rates to assess the economies of every county in the nation, says Sanders County has the worst numbers in Montana.
Neighboring Lincoln and Mineral counties aren't far behind.
Generally speaking, the farther east you go in the state, the better local economies are faring, according to the index. Missoula County's number, for instance, is one of the best in western Montana, but worse than every county east of the Continental Divide.
Larry Swanson, director of the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Missoula, didn't even have to see the AP map to have a pretty good idea of the story the numbers told - and others that might not be so apparent.
"Up in the northwest part of Montana, you have a legacy of wood products and mining dependency," Swanson said. "They've had the most difficult time adjusting to the transition in the economy. They're a little more stuck in time economically."
But Swanson also said the numbers must be viewed in the correct context.
The state's best local economies are in rural counties in eastern Montana, according to the index, but Swanson said that can be misleading.
"Are they having a lot of foreclosures?" he asked. "No, because they didn't build a lot of houses. Do they have high unemployment rates? No, because people are leaving. Those rural counties in eastern Montana are all still losing population."
The higher the number, the more the financial stress being felt by local residents, according to the Economic Stress Index.
Sanders County came in at 21.42.
Lincoln County's number was 20.9, followed by Mineral (18.01), Flathead (16.14), Ravalli (14.55), Lake (14.4), Granite (14.25), Powell (11.99) and Missoula (10.05).
Compare those to the numbers from some of Montana's easternmost counties: 3.36 (Richland), 3.38 (Fallon), 3.57 (McCone).
"It's very contextual," Swanson said, "and can be very misleading. You have to put it within the context of the last two years of the economic recession."
Take Cascade County. Its number, 8.8, is more indicative of a flatter, more stable economy than anything, Swanson said.
"They didn't have the housing boom in Great Falls that we did in Missoula," he said. Flathead County, on the other hand, was one of the most "hyperactive" areas during the economic boom, and Swanson said it should come as no surprise that, in the wake of the recession, it now has the fourth-worst rating in the state.
"The faster you rise," he said, "the harder you'll fall."
According to Associated Press writers Mike Schneider and Martin Crutsinger, the AP's index calculates a score from 1 to 100 based on unemployment, foreclosure and bankruptcy rates. A high score signals more economic stress.
One of the worst counties in the nation is Colusa County, Calif., where the number stands at 32.51.
One of the best: Slope County, N.D., where it's just 1.5.
The average county's stress score across the nation in January, 2011 was 11.2. Under a rough rule of thumb, Schneider and Crutsinger said, a county is considered stressed when its score exceeds 11.
That means that, outside of Missoula, most western Montana counties are still under stress - some, a great deal of stress.
As a state, however, Montana has one of the better numbers on the index - 9.91 - in the West.
Nevada has the worst at 21.41, and Washington, Oregon, Idaho, California, Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico all have higher numbers than Montana.
But you don't have to go far to find the best numbers in the nation, either. North Dakota is at 5.24, Nebraska is at 5.85 and South Dakota is 6.19.
Again, Swanson said, these are places that didn't have the same experience the economic boom brought in other states, and are therefore more immune to the bust.
"Some people are calling the Dakotas the ‘third coast,' " Swanson said. "It's a term that had previously been applied to the Rocky Mountain West. The reason North Dakota is doing so great is it's in position to be more stable in the midst of an economic downturn."
The oil and gas boom going on there is only part of the picture, Swanson said. Economies with deep links to agriculture tend to be more stable, he said. That's the reason, in difficult economic times, that eastern Montana numbers on the stress index are better than western Montana's.
"If you took it back five years," Swanson said, "it would show a whole different thing."