The phrase “public lands” has been bandied about the West with increasing frequency in recent years as debate swirls around best land-management practices, lawmakers hear impassioned entreaties from their constituents and conservationists fulminate against the Trump administration’s pro-industry agenda.
The subject was decidedly less divisive during the course of a recent two-day confluence of stakeholders at the state’s first-ever Business of Outdoor Recreation Summit, a gathering in Whitefish of more than 250 attendees and speakers organized by the Montana Office of Outdoor Recreation to discuss the value of outdoors to businesses and communities on local landscapes.
During a series of wide-ranging panel discussions and free-form conversations at the summit, experts in the field tallied the value and currency of outdoor recreation in dollar signs and quality of life, infrastructure improvements and wildlife conservation.
Some conference attendees noted that the very creation of a statewide Office of Outdoor Recreation represents a paradigm shift from the days when all economic attention centered on Montana’s oil and gas industries, as well as timber, coal and agriculture.
The concept of “geotourism” and destination travel hadn’t sunk into the collective consciousness, and economic reports hadn’t yet begun linking the region’s fastest-growing economies to federally managed public lands.
But all that’s changed now.
“This is a sea change from where we were not so very long ago,” Michael Jamison, senior program director for the National Parks Conservation Association’s Glacier field office, said.
According to the Outdoor Industry Association’s most recent figures, outdoor recreation is now the largest sector of Montana’s economy, generating more than $7 billion per year in consumer spending and supporting over 70,000 jobs that pay more than $2 billion worth of wages. Those figures don’t account for indirect economic effects, such as the numerous startups and small businesses that choose to locate here because of the state’s outdoor recreation opportunities.
In many ways, America is in the midst of an outdoor recreation renaissance, a trend driven by innovation, awareness and sheer growth in the number of people exploring nature.
The summit centered on a suite of topics, including: how to turn community vision into community planning; balancing infrastructure growth with sustainable long-term management and funding; project planning across multiple landowners and land managers; communicating outdoor recreation and conservation needs to local, state and federal elected officials; funding long-term operations and maintenance; and more.
Led by Whitefish native Rachel VandeVoort, the summit ran Dec. 4-5 at Grouse Mountain Lodge, where community members, conservation and tribal leaders, and recreation and conservation groups from Montana and the Greater Crown of the Continent, including Alberta and British Columbia, converged to talk about a range of issues facing Western landscapes and local economies.
“This is just the beginning of the conversation,” VandeVoort said. “These are the stewards of the conversation. The people that are here are going to leave here with these ideas and share them with community members, fellow businesspeople, land managers, lawmakers. So this is really just the beginning.”
One prominent narrative that emerged from the patchwork of conversations is that public lands mean different things to different people, but as soon as individuals engage with open spaces they are immediately suffused with the greater fabric of the landscape.
Jamison credited the outdoor recreation industry with adopting the language of business in quantifying the value of public lands and focusing the economic conversation on creating and sustaining jobs, as well as community well-being and quality of life.
He also gave credit to companies like F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Co. in Columbia Falls, whose land and resource manager, Paul McKenzie, hosted a cocktail session at Casey’s in downtown Whitefish in concert with the National Parks Conservation Association, an organization Stoltze has worked with to adopt land-use plans and conservation easements.
“We’re not talking about conservation or timber,” McKenzie said. “We’re talking about conservation and timber.”
In places like the Flathead Valley, Jamison said the support of businesses like Stoltze packs a big punch when it comes time to sit down at the table with state and federal land managers to hammer out a land-use plan or a conservation easement.
“Industry and business is the language we use in this country. It’s how we value things. The politics of this matters and showing up matters, and when business shows up it punches above its weight class,” Jamison said. “It makes a big difference. But so does everyone here. I would argue that every time you buy a hunting or fishing license, that is a political act. If I go down to Rocky Mountain Outfitter and buy a piece of gear there instead of on Amazon, that is a political act.”
He told a story about the former CEO of Kalispell Regional Healthcare, Velinda Stevens, who passed away in January 2017, and how she hired physicians based on whether they were drawn to the region’s quality of life.
“She used to tell me that she would hire new doctors by putting the hiring contract in her hip pocket and taking them to Glacier Park to spend the day. At the end of the day, if the doc got it, she took out the contract and offered him the job. If the doc spent the whole day on his phone, the contract stayed in her pocket,” he said. “There’s a lot to be said about hiring that way. When it’s put into that service, it’s really powerful.”
Lisa Pike Sheehy, vice president of environmental activism for Patagonia, noted the growing strength of the outdoor recreation industry by pointing to the massive backlash sparked by President Trump’s downsizing of two massive national monuments in Utah, not only by American Indians and conservation groups, but also from the outdoor industry, which moors its future in public lands.
She said the response marks a watershed moment for an industry that even a half-decade ago wasn’t as invested in environmental activism.
“The industry as a whole was kind of a sleeping giant for a while on conservation. But I really think things have dramatically changed in the last five and really three years,” she said. “It’s exciting. The industry has a much sharper point of view, a more cohesive point of view about taking action on public lands and there is no better example than what happened in Utah. And how the industry came together and said if the senior elected leadership of this state is going to continue to be hostile to public lands and ask for the rescinding of an incredible place like Bears Ears or Grand Staircase Escalante, then we are going to take our business elsewhere. We are going to take the economic engine that we are and remove that from Utah and take it somewhere else, which we did. That was no small feat. That was a watershed moment. And that shows you that urgent times require drastic measures.”
In another example of the different value sets being ascribed to public lands, Jamison told the story about the National Park Service’s preparation for the construction of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, the alpine mountain highway that cuts through the heart of Glacier National Park.
In 1918, National Park Service Chief Engineer George Goodwin proposed a route that followed the Logan Creek Valley, ascending about 2,600 feet to Logan Pass. The proposed route crossed Logan Creek seven times in a series of hairpin turns, or switchbacks, ascending the steep slope. Goodwin claimed that this direct route would “meet every requirement for park travel or commercial hauling.”
Stephen Mather, Director of the National Park Service, went to Glacier during the summer of 1924 to inspect the proposed route with Goodwin, as well as the National Park Service’s landscape engineer, Thomas Vint, and the park superintendent. Dismounting a few miles west of Logan Pass, the group took in the view of Logan Creek and the summits of the Livingston Range that marked the Continental Divide down the center of the park. Dominated by the huge, almost vertical cliff called the Garden Wall, the green valley of Logan Creek provided the foreground of a stunning panorama of the Glacier high country.
Vint complained that building switchbacks up the valley would make it look “like miners had been in there,” and instead urged the director to replace the series of switchbacks with a road carved directly into the rock of the Garden Wall, which would require just one switchback but called for a more challenging and expensive design, even if it was more elegant.
“Ultimately Mather chose the more delicate road with a single switchback because he recognized that this was not a utilitarian road,” Jamison said. “He recognized that there was an aesthetic. This had more to do with culture than it had to do with efficiency in getting across a mountain. Those were very deliberate choices that were made. It’s an incredibly rare legacy of public land that we’ve inherited and it was very purposeful and intentional. We have an obligation to what we’ve inherited at some level. So let’s make good choices.”