Access is a Big Deal

Montanans deserve better access and more habitat. It’s good business.

By Mike Jopek

Nearly 5 million people
visited Montana’s great national parks last year, spending close to $500 million while in state. Visitors to Glacier National Park spent nearly $200 million locally and supported almost 3,500 jobs.

A separate survey commissioned by the University of Montana held a staggering 92 percent of respondents indicating national parks are critical to Montana’s economy.

Nearly three quarters of respondents said that Montana could protect land and water and have a strong economy with good jobs at the same time, without having to choose one over the other.

Last year when the City of Whitefish asked voters to raise the resort tax from 2 percent to 3 percent to purchase a permanent 3,000-acre conservation easement adjacent to the municipality, a whopping 84 percent of voters supported the ballot measure.

Gov. Steve Bullock released a four-point plan on Montana’s great outdoors. Bullock indicated that Montana is home to 30 million acres of state and federal public land. Our state is host to two major national parks and 55 state parks. Overall, Montana boasts a dozen ski resorts, two in the Flathead.

Montana’s outdoor recreational economy supports some 60,000 jobs and generates $6 billion in economic activity. That’s one powerhouse of a political movement.

Bullock wrote to the editor, in part, “You don’t have to own a big piece of property to experience some of the best hunting and fishing in the world. You don’t have to have friends in high places if you want to explore our mountains and trails with cameras, or hiking boots, or mountain bikes.”

Bullock is correct and enjoys a record of helping gain access and conserving some great public places in Montana, many here in the Flathead. Previously, Bullock reported that Montana created more than 10,000 jobs in 2015.

In Helena, we passed laws protecting access to streams and waterways. Access to streams is a right that Montanans enjoy. Not everyone agreed and some still don’t; yet public stream access laws have survived the big lawsuit brought by opponents to court.

Long-time public lands advocate and newspaper columnist George Ochenski again encouraged the land management concept of identifying the corner posts of Montana’s 5 million acres of state public lands. It’s still a good idea.

It’s like the concept I worked on many years ago with help from Ochenski and several other public lands advocates. In the 60th Legislature we worked the bill to mark our state public land’s corners. Leased public land that abuts private land could be much helped by a blue-painted post to indicate the public-private boundary.

A GOP-controlled House summarily dismissed that idea yet by nearly unanimous vote supported better stream access laws in a subsequent Legislature.

Nearly everyone who enjoys enhanced access to public lands, trails, lakes and streams in Whitefish or the Flathead will tell you they simply enjoy the outdoors.

Outdoor recreation brings measurable benefits to the Flathead economy. Enhanced public lands access to trails, lakes and waterways greatly helps local businesses.

In all things politics there’s a handful of naysayers. Some just don’t like conservation. Ideology trumps pragmatism.

Montanans likely hold a strong public perception of Bullock on public lands management and access to waterways. Bullock’s plan for an Office of Outdoor Recreation offers a clear-headed approach and acknowledges the sheer magnitude of the outdoor economy.

Montanans deserve better access and more habitat. It’s good business.

Access is a big deal, most every candidate running for office agree. Yet in Helena, many routinely work to defund state parks or eliminate public access programs.

Bullock’s plan seeks to expand access and habit while keeping our public lands in trust for us and our kids. That’s great news for outdoor recreationalist, jobs and local businesses.

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