Why do we choose to live in Montana? The answer likely includes some combination of: camping, rafting, fishing, hiking, hunting, biking, downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, climbing, knowing where my food is produced, beautiful open spaces, views, and the small town culture. For me, it also offers the chance to do these activities with family and friends.
What if we didn’t have ready access to these activities? What if Montana didn’t stand out from the places we have chosen to move from? In today’s world of crazy, scary events and ideas – that is one that I think we can all agree we don’t want to see!
Thankfully, Montana has done a good job of creating, managing and protecting the lands and waters that provide us these opportunities. Montanans have worked side-by-side with federal and state agencies, non-profits and private landowners to keep our wildlife, waterways, public access, and our working farms and ranches largely intact. We cannot forget that history, nor minimize the effort and funding that went into it.
What are we doing to safeguard and enhance these treasures today? With Montana growing and changing fast – is our generation doing enough to ensure we will remain the last best place for our children?
A new report released last month by Headwaters Economics (www.headwaterseconomics.org) addresses this question. The report concludes that population, visitation, and development pressures are growing and putting more and more stress on our resources every year. Yet, our spending is not keeping up with the increasing pressures. Whether it be managing wildlife, combating invasive species, providing access to public lands, protecting farms and ranches, or protecting outdoor recreation, our available funding is not keeping pace. Unfortunately, we are not missing the mark by a few pennies. We are falling millions of dollars short of what is necessary to keep up.
How do we address this issue, this issue that seemingly everyone can agree on?
States like Washington, Colorado, and Minnesota have experienced similar funding gaps. They have done something about it. In fact, 36 other states have adopted state-level investment funds to augment federal and private funding sources. Each state has independently created its own solutions to better invest in a wide range of outdoor needs (generating funds from bonds, lotteries, oil and gas and more).
While Montana makes use of many valuable federal and state funding sources and programs, we don’t have our own stand-alone, state-level funding source that can invest in our outdoor needs. Should we consider adopting such a fund?
My answer may not be your answer. Nor would I expect my priorities for investing such a fund to be the same as yours. The Montana Outdoor Heritage Project (www.montanaheritageproject.com) is a collaboration of small businesses, sportsmen, recreationalists, conservation groups and more from across the state. The project is asking for public input on whether and how to enhance funding for private and public lands conservation, wildlife management, and outdoor access. It has heard from over 7,500 folks across the state and is working to reach over 10,000 by September. This is local Montana problem-solving as its best, and I encourage you go to get involved; first by filling out the survey on their website (www.montanaheritageproject.com) so that your voice is heard.
As a Montana business owner and a longtime member of Business for Montana’s Outdoors (www.businessformontanasoutdoors.com), I’ll tell you where I stand on this issue. Montana’s outdoor assets fuel a $7-billion-dollar-a-year outdoor economy and create a commensurate level of jobs. That’s the economic argument. The non-economic argument is that Montana is the last best place and we need to keep it that way. For the sake of our kids, I think it’s time the state considers a more strategic way of taking care of our outdoor amenities. They very clearly drive job growth, provide opportunities for our kids, and contribute to our core identify as Montanans.
Robert Keith is founder of Beartooth Group (www.beartoothgroup.com) based in Bozeman and a member of Business for Montana’s Outdoors.