Montana’s largest economic driver – agriculture – has an entire state department dedicated to it. Now, Montana’s governor wants to add a new state office to promote part of the second largest: recreational tourism.
On Monday, in front an audience of about 40 sportsmen, outdoors enthusiasts and parents, Gov. Steve Bullock continued his statewide tour promoting the need for Montana to be more active in maintaining and improving public lands and public access. Not only does public land recreation contribute billions to the state economy but it makes Montanans happy, Bullock said.
A May poll showed that more than three-quarters of 500 Montana voters thought national parks and public lands are good for jobs, up from 62 percent in 2014. The University of Montana’s Crown of the Continent and the Greater Yellowstone Initiative commissioned the survey.
Bullock said Montanans love their national parks but also treasure those special places closer to home where they like to hike, hunt or fish, places that aren’t as flashy but are just as important to parents who want their children to experience the joys they had as kids.
Prior to highlighting his three-pronged proposal, Bullock cited a few statistics from the Outdoor Industry Association: public lands recreation has created more than 64,000 jobs and 12 million visitors help pump about $6 billion in consumer spending into the state every year.
“In other words, our public lands and public access equals economy in our state,” Bullock said. “That’s why we’ll be asking the Legislature when they come in January to create the Office of Outdoor Recreation.”
The new office will fall under the state Office of Economic Development. It will promote the state’s outdoor recreation opportunities nationally and be a resource for businesses in the outdoor recreation industry. Many businesses, such as Simms Fishing Products and Mystery Ranch Backpacks, set up shop in Montana to be near vast regions of public land and their recreational opportunities.
Bullock said the Legislature would decide how much money to allocate for the office. But just as Silicon Valley is to software and Detroit was for cars, Bullock said he sees Montana becoming “an anchor of what the outdoor industry is for the entire nation.”
The second prong has been to create the new position of Public Access Specialist in the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
The new specialist will work solely on improving access to the many sections of public land that are now unreachable because they are surrounded by private property. Bullock said that position has been created with existing resources so new money won’t have to be allocated. The position posting is open until Friday.
“There are challenges when it comes to public access - padlocks on the gates - and ultimately, more money is spent on litigation where we ought to be able to find creative ways to open it up,” Bullock said. “The two positions that were created - as we look forward to the significance of the outdoor industry economy in our state, to be able to promote it, to be able to build on it - will create more jobs and opportunities for the state of Montana. It’s a modest investment - and other states have seen the value of doing so - so we plan our future by design, not by happenstance.”
Finally, Bullock wants the Legislature to remove the shackles from the Habitat Montana Fund.
Under the Habitat Montana program, created in 1987, roughly $3 million per year in hunting license revenue is set aside to preserve and enhance important wildlife lands. The roughly $10 million in the account right now could be used to purchase conservation easements or buy land outright.
But during the past few Legislatures, politicians have passed bills prohibiting the purchase of fee-title land with Habitat Montana funds. Bullock said that could cause the loss of open land that is poised to go on sale, property that could unlock some inaccessible public land.
“It protects Montana’s open spaces today so that the next generations will be able to use them forever. But funding for the initiative locked up, not being put to use, means that Habitat Montana is not going to work for Montanans,” Bullock said.
Todd Frank, owner of the Trailhead outdoors supply store in Missoula for 42 years, said Montana businesses favor Bullock’s efforts as they struggle to compete against Internet companies such as Amazon.
“Access to public lands and waters is good for business,” Frank said. “Without it, I would have no business.”
Repeating his mantra, “Not on my watch,” Bullock finished by emphasizing that public lands would remain public under his leadership. When asked if the sell-off of public lands was much of a threat, Bullock pointed out that Republican Party platforms, legislative bills and even Congressional efforts are all pushing the issue.
For example, Sanders County Sen. Jennifer Fielder has sponsored several state bills related to the transfer of federal land and is now the head of the Utah-based American Lands Council, which lobbies for state control of federal lands.
Fielder saw to it that federal transfer is part of the state GOP platform, and on Monday, the committee tasked with writing the national Republican Party's 2016 platform voted to include language calling on Congress to return federal lands to the states immediately.
And recently, U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, a self-described Teddy Roosevelt Republican, was accused of abandoning his oath against selling federal lands when he voted to allow state committees to oversee management of national forest lands.
Bullock said the threat is real.
“These public lands are part of our birthright, it’s part of the values we hold as Montanans, and I think it’s a great equalizer that we can’t lose,” Bullock said.