Opinion: Outdoors is a natural resource for Montana’s economy

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As the Outdoor Industry Association recently confirmed, outdoor recreation is not only intrinsic to our way of life in Montana, it is now the largest sector of Montana’s economy.

According to the association’s new numbers, Montana’s outdoor recreation economy generates over $7 billion per year in consumer spending and supports over 70,000 jobs that pay more than $2 billion worth of wages. These numbers, while eye-popping, are even more impressive when you consider that they don’t even account for indirect economic effects, such as the hundreds of start-ups and small businesses that choose to locate here to take advantage of our outdoor way of life.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the report is that the old “economy versus conservation” dichotomy no longer applies. As this data shows, our economy actually depends on conservation of our public lands. Not only are public lands critical to the clean air and water that make our communities livable, they are what make our outdoor recreation economy tick, with hikers, bikers, skiers, and others spending billions each year in Montana while recreating on public lands.

This report from the Outdoor Industry Association also makes clear that Montana is home to a thriving industry of small businesses, an industry that is resilient, even in times of economic downturn. But, just like other key sectors of our economy, we can’t expect this industry to grow if we don’t have the right policies in place. A common-sense and much-needed first step is the creation of Montana’s own Office of Outdoor Recreation, and we applaud Gov. Steve Bullock for recently announcing that he will create this office in September. Similar offices have already been created in at least six other states.

Despite the enormous influence that outdoor recreation plays in our state’s economy, we have never had an office dedicated to supporting and growing that sector. While several different agencies manage various pieces of the outdoor recreation economy — State Parks, Office of Tourism, Office of Economic Development, for instance — we lack a unified and strategic approach to this massive part of our economy.

This new Office of Outdoor Recreation could play several critical roles in our outdoor recreation economy. One of its top priorities should be to expand the outdoor recreation economy map in Montana and help rural communities across the state gain access to the resources they need to more fully capture the benefits of that economy. Those resources could include grant opportunities to strengthen trail systems and improve outdoor infrastructure. Likewise, the office could be an important advocate for rural business owners, such as outfitters and guides, who have ideas on how to improve Montana’s regulatory environment and promote outdoor tourism.

Another priority should be to protect our public lands. For our outdoor economy to thrive, we must reaffirm our commitment to keeping our public lands intact, well-managed, and accessible, especially as visitation continues to rise. That means, at a minimum, rejecting efforts to transfer ownership or management to the state, a move that would compel the state to either industrialize or sell off those lands just to keep the state from going bankrupt. It also means strengthening and supporting efforts to protect wildlands and investing in outdoor recreation infrastructure. Keeping our public lands in prime condition — with clean water, clear trails, abundant wildlife, and beautiful vistas — is, after all, the right economic choice.

Finally, the office should serve as an advocate for properly funding our public land management agencies. We rely on the Park Service, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and other agencies to maintain trails, trailheads, campgrounds, and other infrastructure on our public lands. Without that infrastructure in place, we can’t expect our outdoor recreation economy to continue to thrive. Right now, these agencies are facing a budget crisis, and the Office of Outdoor Recreation could serve as a powerful voice in persuading our elected officials to adequately fund those agencies.

Every community in our state has the potential to use outdoor recreation to improve the quality of life for its residents and attract new visitors, businesses, and investment. We hope this office helps more communities harness the power of this booming sector of our economy.

Kayje Booker is state policy director at Montana Wilderness Association.

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