Booming Recreation Economy

Why is there not more cooperation and coordination regarding our important recreation economy?

By Mary Sexton

It’s January; may the political squabbles kick into high gear! While our legislators and Congress tackle big issues, let’s take a look at what really makes Montana tick, and for many people, that’s recreation. And, it ain’t just about huntin’ and fishin’ anymore.

Recreation on our public lands is not only what many of us do – even on cold, winter days – recreation is a true economic driver in Montana. At a roundtable discussion on recreation and the economy in Missoula a few months ago, folks from bike touring companies, GPS mapping businesses, IT groups, and gear makers to local city council representatives talked about the need to keep recreation opportunities alive and well because businesses thrive on recreation and tourism. Plus, business people say that potential employees come and stay in Montana because they can enjoy the great outdoors. People love to hike, trail run, paddle board, ski, snowmobile, and ride horses – as well as hunt and fish.

And visitors to Montana love our public recreational and outdoor assets. Glacier and Yellowstone break visitation records every year. Over the past six years, use of our state parks has increased almost 50 percent – from both in-state and out-of-state visitors. It’s estimated that 64,000 jobs in Montana are directly related to recreation with consumer spending amounting to $5.8 billion, yes, billion.

As we see this boom, many of the folks who share common interests in recreation – public lands advocates, traditional hunters and anglers, tourism businesses, local chambers of commerce – do not talk to each other as well as they might. Could hospitality and tourism industries reach out to the conservation community? Why don’t fishing guides partner with paddle boarders to seek more funding for Fishing Access Sites, which now serve many recreational purposes? Even within the Montana, Fish, Wildlife and Parks agency, internal tensions exist over recreation; conciliation is needed. Why is there not more cooperation and coordination regarding our important recreation economy?

Well, Gov. Steve Bullock has proposed an Office of Outdoor Recreation to bring more determined focus to issues surrounding the recreation economy. Other states have successfully used such an office to bring folks together, to give attention to infrastructure needs, access, and business support.

With federal funding for maintenance of infrastructure on public lands declining, and funding for state parks some of the lowest in the nation, our booming recreation economy faces some tough challenges ahead. If we don’t cooperate, talk to each other, and work together better, we are harming what we truly love about Montana – and an important economic sector – recreation!

Mary Sexton is the Montana State Parks and Recreation Board vice-chair. She lives in Choteau.