Eating the Scenery

Recreation is essential to our economy and how we perceive our quality of life

By Kellyn Brown

Gallup polled about 500 residents of each state, asking them: “Ideally, if you had the opportunity, would you like to move permanently to another state?” Montana, among all its peers, ranked dead last in percentage of respondents who wanted to leave. It wasn’t that close.

Just 13 percent of Montanans have a desire to relocate elsewhere. Oregonians are also happy. Only 17 percent want to move, the second lowest of all states. In contrast, states with the highest percentage of its population wanting to leave are, in order: Connecticut (46 percent), New Jersey (46 percent), and Illinois (42 percent).

There are plenty of reasons to like it here, but chief among them is the elbowroom we enjoy each day. Our cities and towns are separated by vast mountain ranges and sweeping plains. That open space is why we stay and why others visit. It also keeps many of our residents employed.

The Outdoor Industry Association estimates that outdoor recreation in Montana supports 64,000 jobs; provides $1.5 billion in wages and salaries; draws $5.8 billion in consumer spending; and generates $403 million in state and local tax revenue. That money comes from tourists and locals alike. “At least 71 percent of Montana residents participate in outdoor recreation each year,” according to the report.

The numbers are big, but unsurprising. Glacier National Park continues to draw a record number of visitors. So do state parks. Montana airports are logging their most-ever passengers. People want to be here and be outside. They want room to roam.

Like many western states, recreation is essential to our economy and how we perceive our quality of life. In recent years, a pair of more populated states in the region has elevated the industry aspect of the great outdoors by creating state agencies to help it flourish.

In 2013, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert created the Office of Outdoor Recreation and named as its first-ever director Brad Petersen, who was tasked with “promoting economic development in the outdoor industry and improving recreational opportunities.”

As the Denver Post points out, Herbert is no “barefooted tree-hugger.” He previously irked environmentalists and outdoor industry business owners when he expanded energy development and sued the federal government over access to roads inside national parks and wilderness areas.

Utah already hosts the biannual Outdoor Retailer tradeshows, the largest in the state, that attract 17,000 visitors and have an annual $40 million economic impact in Salt Lake City. Still, Herbert recognized the role of recreation alongside other large industries, such as health care. “We were playing catch-up in terms of awareness,” he said. “We are not as well known as Vail.”

Speaking of Colorado, this week Luis Benitez is visiting the Flathead Valley to talk about the value of parks and outdoor recreation. Benitez, who has climbed Mount Everest six times, is serving as the first director of the newly created Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office. That state’s governor, John Hickenlooper, launched the department in 2015.

Like Peterson in Utah, Benitez advocates for his state’s massive outdoor industry, home to the most trafficked ski resorts in the country. After taking the job, he said the office would start “to craft the collaborative vision for the future of the Outdoor Recreation Industry in Colorado.”

Montana could learn from these states. While it does well promoting outdoor opportunities through its tourism arm, it should consider elevating such an essential industry. It’s true, as the old saying goes, “you can’t eat the scenery.” But you can further capitalize on it.

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