Lawmakers Should Support Public Lands Funding

We look forward to working with Gov. Gianforte and the Montana Legislature to protect our outdoor way of life

By Frank Szollosi, Dick Dolan, Noah Marion and Whitney Tawney

Lawmakers in Helena will soon have a chance to grow Montana’s future prosperity, and respect the will of Montana voters, by using a promising new revenue source to expand public access and outdoor opportunity.

This fall, voters passed marijuana legalization ballot measures with broad, bipartisan, statewide support. The initiatives contained language directing roughly half of the revenue generated from recreational marijuana sales to support state parks maintenance, improve public access, protect working lands, and safeguard our state’s most critical wildlife habitat.

These ballot measures were a clear mandate by voters to support Montana’s underfunded public lands agencies and protect our outdoor way of life. Now it’s time for Montana lawmakers to honor the spirit of those measures as voters intended.    

Previous legislatures and administrations have made incredible bipartisan progress toward making Montana the world-class sporting and outdoor recreation state it is. Because of their work creating and maintaining state parks, trails, boat ramps, and key outdoor infrastructure, we’re closer to ensuring that every Montanan regardless of income or background has opportunities to hunt, fish, hike, and get outside. The state also benefits economically from tens of thousands of outdoor jobs that depend on public lands. A recent federal report showed Montana’s outdoor economy is one of our leading industries and contributes a larger share of our state’s gross domestic product than in any other state in the continental United States.

In that vein, we are pleased to see Gov. Greg Gianforte recognize the value of Montana’s outdoor economy and outdoor way of life in his proposed budget. Gianforte’s budget would continue to fund the state agencies and outdoor programs that support wildlife protection, enhance public access, and conserve our working lands. We want to specifically thank the governor for vowing to increase funding for critical public land access and conservation programs, including Montana’s premier conservation tool, Habitat Montana.

However, the governor’s proposed budget should only be considered a starting point for lawmakers in Helena because it diverts all money from recreational marijuana sales away from public access, outdoor opportunities, and the outdoor economy. Economists at the University of Montana estimate that a licensed marijuana industry could generate $52 million in annual tax revenue once the market is up and running. It’s paramount this revenue help fuel Montana’s economic recovery from COVID-19 and establish long-term economic development by investing in our state’s natural competitive advantage – our public lands and outdoor opportunities.

Our outdoors are essential to our high quality of life and help Montana attract good jobs, visitors, and investment that keep our economy strong. Across our state, small businesses and local communities rely on recreational spending, and Montanans know how critical conservation dollars are to maintaining and improving our financial security.

Investing in our public lands is a necessary part of strengthening our towns, our businesses, and our state. We support dedicating real resources to help all Montanans live safe and healthy lives, and we encourage the governor and the Legislature to recognize that investing in our public lands is a critical part of that strategy.

Montana is still the Last Best Place. To keep it that way, the state should invest the revenue generated by the sale of recreational marijuana in preserving, maintaining, and securing access to our public lands, as voters intended. We look forward to working with Gov. Gianforte and the Montana Legislature to protect our outdoor way of life and the tens of thousands of jobs it supports by crafting a budget that supports the needs of all Montanans, prioritizes public lands, and grows our state’s long-term prosperity.

Frank Szollosi is with Montana Wildlife Federation; Dick Dolan is with The Trust for Public Land; Noah Marion is with Montana Wilderness Association; and Whitney Tawney is with Montana Conservation Voters.

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