Dear readers, 

Montana Free Press is taking an out-of-office holiday break Dec. 27-31. Instead of new stories, we’ll be publishing MTFP reporters’ look back at their most impactful, interesting, challenging, and just plain favorite stories of the past year. Today is Justin Franz’ turn.

When I first started freelancing for Montana Free Press in the summer of 2020, I sometimes wondered what I would write about after the pandemic. More than a year later, the pandemic has yet to end, but I’ve found that there’s still been plenty more to report on. Here are the five storylines and subjects I wrote about for MTFP that were  most interesting to me in 2021. 

5) For more than a year, the U.S.-Canada border was closed due to the pandemic, much to the frustration of locals in Lincoln County, where communities on either side of the line enjoy close connections. I’ve long found the relationships forged across that international boundary to be fascinating, and I was glad to do some reporting on the dynamic throughout the year, especially after the border finally reopened

4) “Montana passenger rail” isn’t generally a busy beat, but 2021 was a surprisingly newsy one for Amtrak in the state, marked by a mix of highs and lows. In southern Montana, a grassroots effort to restore passenger service along the route of the long-lost North Coast Hiawatha gained ground. And along the Hi-Line, pandemic-related service cuts were rescinded thanks to the American Rescue Plan. But tragedy struck a few months later when three people were killed when the Empire Builder derailed west of Havre. It was the deadliest railroad accident in the U.S. since 2017. 

3) More than 18 months since we first heard of COVID-19, the pandemic continues to roar in the United States and in Montana. For months, the Flathead Valley, where I’m based, was one of the state’s hot spots, pushing hospitals, local public health officials, and school boards to the brink

2) I’m still not entirely sure how I ended up on the cannabis beat, but I did. This year was a fascinating one as the state Legislature figured out how to establish Montana’s adult-use recreational marijuana program. After the Legislature set up a framework for it in the spring, cities and towns have been busy figuring out how they’ll handle zoning and taxes. And even though we’ve known for more than a year that it was going to be legal to buy cannabis on Jan. 1, 2022, there are still worries about shortages

1) The Montana real estate “land grab” that began in 2020 continued into this year, exacerbating an ongoing housing crisis in places like Missoula, Bozeman and the Flathead Valley, where some people have given up trying to find housing and just moved away. And it’s not just in Montana’s population centers where the market is hot — some real estate agents are looking to cash in on migration to the rural “American Redoubt.” A look at the redoubt real estate market was my favorite story of the year for Montana Free Press. 

Justin Franz is a freelance writer, photographer and editor based in Whitefish. Originally from Maine, he is a graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism and worked for the Flathead Beacon for nine years. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Seattle Times and New York Times. Find him at or follow him on Twitter.