Report Details State Funding Shortages for Conservation and Outdoor Recreation

New study says Montana is one of 14 states without statewide funding program

By Myers Reece
The Northern Rockies Paddlefest at Wayfarers State Park in Bigfork Beacon file photo

Funding to protect working farms and forests, wildlife and outdoor recreation in Montana is greatly insufficient — by tens of millions of dollars — to keep pace with growing demand, according to a first-of-its-kind report.

The newly released study, titled “Funding Needs for Wildlife, Working Lands, and Recreation in Montana” and published by Headwaters Economics and the Montana Outdoor Heritage Project, “seeks to understand whether existing funding is adequate to maintain the state’s outdoor way of life as population, visitation and development pressures continue to expand.” The report analyzes a wide variety of funding sources.

Headwaters Economics is a Bozeman-based independent nonpartisan research organization, while the Montana Outdoor Heritage Project is “a coalition of volunteers and outdoor organizations seeking public input and solutions to enhance funding for private and public lands conservation, wildlife management, and outdoor access and recreation in Montana.” The coalition’s members include ranchers, motorized-recreation advocates, conservationists, educators, small business owners and more.

The report, citing two different studies, notes that 95 percent of Montanans say outdoor recreation is important to their quality of life and 71 percent consider themselves conservationists.

According to the analysis, “funding needs aimed at protecting working farms and ranches, managing fish and wildlife resources, and maintaining public recreation opportunity all exceed available federal, state and private budget allocations.”

“This report echoes what we are hearing on the ground as we discuss these same issues with Montanans across the state,” said Dave Chadwick, executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation and a member of the Montana Outdoor Heritage Project. “As Montana continues to change and grow, we have a growing need to discover more stable funding solutions to ensure our outdoor way of life is adequately maintained for future generations.”

The study identifies federal funds as a crucial funding source for working lands, wildlife management, habitation protection, parks and trails in Montana through programs and legislation such as the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), Farm Bill and Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act, as well as through federal agencies.

But the report says federal funds don’t cover all of the state’s needs, as many conservation needs aren’t on federal land, including working farms and ranches, local trails and state wildlife management areas. Furthermore, federal sources can be unpredictable, and federal funds often require matching dollars from state, local and private sources.

The study found that Montana’s “consistently underfunded” state parks suffer from a $25.7 million maintenance backlog, a figure that “does not address future recreation needs of a growing population, only past unmet obligations.” Those 55 state parks saw a 40 percent increase in visitation between 2010 and 2017 while park budgets decreased by 2 percent, according to the report. The budget and number of employees per state park in Montana are 73 percent lower than in neighboring states.

The report says trail use and visitation in Montana have been increasing and notes that trails “benefit communities by increasing business, improving public health, and increasing property values.” Trails are managed by federal, state, local and private organizations, but federal budgets have been declining, reducing available dollars for trail building and maintenance.

One consequence of reduced federal budgets is that proposed trail projects often go unfunded. From 2014 to 2018, the report states there was a $6.8 million gap between trail projects proposed and federal funds awarded through the Recreation Trails Program (RTP).

“Other funders are also seeing more proposals than can be funded,” the study states.

The report also says Montana’s private working lands — farms, ranches and forests — face $12.4 million in unmet needs. These working lands “comprise more than half of the state and are an essential piece of the state’s natural resource legacy.” In addition to keeping alive industries and heritages, the report says the lands contain prime agricultural soil, connect wildlife habitat, provide access to public land and create a buffer between wildfires and communities.

The authors say Montana is a national leader in working land conservation through collaborative partnerships, but note that funding for conservation agreements is limited and highly competitive, with a large gap between projects proposed and those approved.

“As our state’s population grows, the pressure to develop private land will continue to grow,” the study asserts. “Since 1990, 1.3 million acres of Montana’s open space has been converted to housing. Rapid development of private lands limits the economic viability and productivity of family farms and forests.”

The fourth section of the report focuses on wildlife, with the authors noting that Montana ranks in the top five nationwide for hunting and fishing participation and that 62 percent of Montanans participate in wildlife-associated recreation. The study says wildlife management requires “collaboration among state and federal agencies, nonprofits, and private landowners,” and that “investments in habitat protection and improvement protect our hunting and fishing heritage and the economic benefits it generates.”

Wildlife management is funded largely by hunting and fishing licenses and federal excise taxes on firearms, archery equipment and fishing gear, but the report says it faces at least a $15 million funding shortage in Montana each year, a problem exacerbated by new threats such as invasive species like zebra mussels and diseases like Chronic Wasting Disease.

“New funding could help address species of concern and ensure that FWP can maintain robust game management,” the report states.

“This is a very conservative estimate of unmet needs and does not represent an exhaustive accounting,” Kelly Pohl, a policy analyst for Headwaters Economics, said of the report’s overall findings. “Also, the data comes from multiple sources and each category we examined has some degree of overlap so we can’t just add them together to arrive at a single number.”

“Regardless of the data imperfections, the report is clearly telling us that maintaining Montana’s outdoor heritage as our state grows will require substantial investments from new sources.”

The report says Montana is one of only 14 states without statewide funding programs for conservation and recreation. Pohl said Montana takes a piecemeal approach through individual state agency budgets and other programs, but 36 states have crafted comprehensive statewide funding programs using different mechanisms, including general appropriations, bonds, oil and gas revenues, lottery proceeds and sales taxes.

Programs in Washington, Minnesota and Colorado generate $28.2 million, $49 million and $125 million per year, respectively, specifically for conservation and outdoor recreation.

“The most successful state-level funding programs we analyzed follow a general pattern: They invest in a wide range of outdoor opportunities; they are accessible to a wide range of communities; they can be used to leverage other funding sources for a net total gain; and they are fully accountable and transparent,” Pohl said.

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