FORT SMITH — Another seven minutes, and Mike Faris might have gone days without his mail.
Faris is among more than 170 U.S. Postal Service customers in Fort Smith who do not have local mail service after the post office ended a contract that operated a local postal outlet.
Fort Smith residents have been driving 40 miles round trip to collect their mail in St. Xavier, where the post office is open a few hours a day, three days a week.
Earlier this week, Faris, a fishing guide, walked in the door just a few minutes before closing time.
He and others say the change has been a hardship, especially for people who work long hours or do not have transportation.
“Guides don’t get to go to the post office at lunchtime,” Faris said.
Bob Weist, manager of Big Horn Angler, said mail service is vital in an isolated place like Fort Smith.
“It’s important to the whole community,” Weist said. “How can you take a post office away?”
The Fort Smith post office is one of 42 contract postal units in Montana, said Lisa Blomquist, a Postal Service consumer affairs manager in Billings.
The Postal Service is advertising for a new contractor and hopes to reopen the Fort Smith unit, Blomquist said.
“We terminated (the old contract) due to administrative concerns,” she said.
Fort Smith postal customers were sent two letters explaining the situation, and a public meeting is scheduled for April 20.
Initially, it was hoped that Fort Smith residents would be able to send and receive mail in St. Xavier until a new contractor could be found, Blomquist said.
But customers must collect their mail when the St. Xavier post office is open because their mail is kept behind the counter, and a 40-mile trip is tough on some people’s gas tanks.
“I have to go once a week,” said Sandy Earwood, who operates a mail-order business selling model horses. “It costs a lot to go every day.”
After receiving complaints about St. Xavier being inconvenient, the post office agreed to put up a cluster of mailboxes in Fort Smith. The cluster boxes should be in use by the end of next week, Blomquist said.
Many people in Fort Smith rely on the Postal Service for their livelihoods, said Colette Olson, who works at the Yellowtail Market.
This time of year, locals are gearing up for the tourist season and need to stock their shelves with fishing gear and other items.
“We depend on our mail carriers,” Olson said. “We sometimes have weeks before we can step outside this valley because we get so busy.”
Contact Diane Cochran at firstname.lastname@example.org or 657-1287.