I recently renewed the tags on our car and I was happy to know that some of that fee was earmarked to support our state parks. Every year, I’m proud to participate, in a small way, in the funding of the parks that mean so much to our way of life. In fact, I’d be happy to pay more because our public lands are why I love Montana. But, while I’m pleased to be able to support our state parks and public lands, I’m also worried about them, because they are facing a very real crisis.
It is time that we start talking about how to reinvest in our public lands. If we don’t, we risk losing them. For generations, residents of the Flathead have built our lives around public access to land and water. We have trails up the mountains of the Whitefish and Swan Ranges, boat ramps around Flathead and Whitefish lakes, and campgrounds throughout the valley. This public land infrastructure provides access to our favorite fishing holes, hunting grounds, and camping spots, and allows us to connect with our families and friends.
Our outdoor way of life is why we’re proud to be Montanans, but it didn’t happen by accident. Many of my favorite places are along the Flathead River, and I recognize that it took decades of hard work and investment by previous generations to protect these public lands, build the trails and establish the critical conservation programs that we depend on today.
Today, we spend less locally and at the state level to maintain our public lands infrastructure than we did 40 years ago. We’re also failing to address the need to expand our public land access at a time we see more visitors to our special wild and public lands than ever. Did you go up to Foys Lake this summer and have a hard time finding a parking spot? Did you also notice the boat launch needs expansion? I did. Overused and inadequate infrastructure like this is limiting access across the state. On top of this, we’re also facing a $296 million maintenance backlog across all Forest Service lands due to chronic federal funding shortages.
More and more people are exploring our public lands, visiting our state parks, and floating our rivers, and the results are easy to see. Many of our trails are overgrown, rutted, and hard to follow. We find Wayfarers Campground in Bigfork, and many others, overcrowded. Trailheads into the Bob Marshall need new corrals and better signage. Our boat ramps are sliding into the Swan River. This summer, I found my access on Flathead Slough blocked off when I ventured out to go fishing.
The public lands infrastructure problems in northwest Montana are consistent with the findings of the recent Montana Trails in Crisis report, released by the Montana Trails Coalition, which found that users across Montana are suffering from a lack of investment in our public lands. The Recreational Trails Program, the primary source of funding trail organizations used to build and maintain our trails, isn’t sufficient to meet the demand for new projects.
Lack of investment in our public lands isn’t just a threat to our outdoor way of life, it’s a threat to our Montana economy. Public lands are the driving force behind our $7.1 billion outdoor recreation economy, which continues to grow rapidly and bring jobs to communities across the state. In fact, outdoor recreation is now responsible for creating over 70,000 jobs, making it the one of the largest sectors of Montana’s economy.
Luckily, we can decide to act to protect our outdoor heritage, our access, and our economy. We don’t have to let our trails vanish, our access disappear, our wildlife suffer, and our campgrounds fall into disrepair. We can choose to invest in and protect the public lands that we already have. And we can choose to make new lands public to ease the pressure on existing infrastructure. Do so, and we will ensure that future generations have places to hunt, fish, ride, hike, camp, and make memories, just like we do today.
As we work to invest and reinvent the core and downtown of Kalispell, we need to ensure that these areas have trail systems that connect them to the surrounding public lands. We need to ensure more opportunities for our families and our guests to get outside and give back to Montana, and that these opportunities also exist for communities across the state.
By choosing to invest in our public lands, we can demonstrate just how important our outdoor way of life is to Montanans. We need to start talking about made-in-Montana solutions to address the rising demands being made of our public lands, and we need to secure stable, long-term, and diverse funding to support the programs and facilities that make it possible. Our public lands are there for every Montanan, and it’s time for us to be there for them.
Kyle Waterman is a Kalispell city council member.