State study would reveal jobs benefit of outdoor recreation

While some Republicans continue to push for the transfer of public lands, one Montana bill is quietly making its way through the Legislature that could show how much local economies might suffer if public lands are lost.

House Joint Resolution 7, sponsored by Rep. Ellie Hill Smith, D-Missoula, asks that the Legislature conduct a study of the economic impacts of outdoor recreation in Montana. The study would take place during the legislative off-year.

Hill Smith presented her bill in the House Fish, Wildlife & Parks committee at the end of January. Hill Smith said the bill came out of her work last year with the Mainstreet Montana Program sponsored by the Montana Chamber of Commerce.

“I wanted to bring this for me, for my family, for the people I talked to and for each of you,” Hill Smith said. “This is just going to recognize the recreational opportunities on 94 million acres in Montana and that outdoor recreation is the core to our outdoor heritage, recreational economy and it’s fueled our own residents, but it’s also fueled by those 10 million visitors to our state every year.”

No one opposed the bill, while six people stepped forward in support, including representatives from local Chambers of Commerce and hunting and ATV groups. Joe Unterreiner of the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce said 60 percent of Flathead County’s workforce is employed by businesses that depend on outdoor recreation.

“A growing portion of our membership supports the recreation and outdoor industry. Glacier Park set a new visitation record this year, a 24-percent increase over last year. It’s a strong and growing part of our economy,” Unterreiner said.

Paula Short of the University of Montana Institute For Tourism and Recreation Research said her organization and others have issued economic reports on the contribution of Montana’s outdoor recreation. For example, a recent summary showed that 12.3 million out-of-state visitors spent almost $3.5 billion in 2016, bringing in almost $194 million in state and local taxes.

But those studies either look at the state as a whole or by region. Short is excited that HJ7 would break the economic contribution down county by county and volunteered her expertise during the study.

Rep. Kerry White, R-Bozeman, who supported previous interim studies on the transfer of public lands, asked Short how much time and money would be required for such a study. Short said it was difficult to know in advance.

White ended up voting in favor of the bill, which passed out of committee on a 15-2 vote. Reps. Kelly Flynn, R-Townsend, and Sue Vinton, R-Billings, voted nay.

Even though it lost a few “yes” votes between second and third readings on the House floor, it passed 56-43 on Tuesday and has been transferred to the Senate Fish and Game committee.

The study will come at a time when Congress is still considering bills to sell or transfer federal land to the states, and those could diminish Montana’s outdoor recreation economy. One-third of the state’s 94 million acres is public land where tourists come to play.

Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research surveys show the majority of tourists choose to visit Montana to see Glacier National Park, Yellowstone NP, mountains and forests, and open spaces in the spring and summer. If those open spaces are sold, inhibiting hiking, camping and wildlife viewing opportunities, tourism will drop and the economy will suffer. If the study is approved, Montanans will learn which counties, like Flathead, are driven by outdoor recreation dollars and which have the most to lose if federal lands are lost.