How to Fund Our Public Lands

The more brains we have thinking about this issue, the better our solution will be

By Jadyn Emerson

For generations, people have flocked to Montana to enjoy our outdoor lifestyle through camping, hiking, fishing, hunting and just generally getting outside. Our wild places are an economic boon to the state, generating an estimated $7 billion in spending every year. The money that the outdoor recreation industry generates is responsible for creating over 70,000 jobs throughout our state and with visits to our state parks up 50 percent since 2011, we can only expect that industry to grow. With our impressive job and visitation numbers, one may assume Montana is on top of simple things like maintaining campgrounds and trails, however that assumption would be wrong. Montana has seen our federal funding for trails cut by over 30 percent in recent decades; we have over a million acres of isolated public land without public access, and we have a serious backlog of important projects to keep up with the growing use of things like campgrounds.

It all comes down to dollars. In Montana we largely fund conservation and public access efforts through excise taxes on things like guns, ammo, and camping supplies. These funding mechanisms have been in place for over 80 years and have served our state well, but they are no longer enough to fully fund and take care of the myriad backlogs we see in Montana. We must come together as a state and find fair, appropriate, and reasonable funding mechanisms to take care of the places that have been taking care of Montanans for generations. Montana state Sen. Terry Gauthier, R-Helena, made an important first step this legislative session by passing a bill to increase the opt-out fee on light vehicle registration to fund our parks, trails, and fishing access sites. But this bill will not be enough on its own to address the $22 million budget gap.

This summer while you are out at your favorite fishing spot, hiking trails in Makoshika state park, or backpacking in the Beartooths, ask your recreation buddies how they would like to see our public lands funded. The more brains we have thinking about this issue, the better our solution will be.

Jadyn Emerson
MontPIRG Board Chair