Strong, pro-public lands agenda important for Montana’s economy

By: 
HARVEY NYBERG

Hunting, fishing and other forms of outdoor recreation are an important part of the culture, tradition and economy of Montana. A few months ago Bozeman-based Headwaters Economics released a study that shows that big game hunting, especially elk hunting, provides $4 million dollars of economic benefit to Fergus and Petroleum Counties. And that does not include bird hunting, fishing, or the numerous other types of outdoor recreation. Statewide, hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation pump $6 billion into our state economy, employs 64,000 people, and accounts for more than $400 million in tax revenue.
These incredible benefits are due primarily to one thing: access to millions of acres of high-quality public lands in our backyards, access we simply can’t afford to lose when faced with the dangerous agenda to transfer American public lands to the state.
Currently, all Americans help us pay for managing the 27 million of acres of public lands within our state. If Montana were to take over ownership or management of those millions of acres, our taxes would skyrocket and quickly reach a point where we would have to either raise taxes and fees or start selling off those lands to prevent our state from going broke. And with those lands would go our outdoor way of life and our outdoor economy.
It’s clear from the Headwaters Economics outdoor recreation economic numbers, which depend so dramatically on access to public lands, that instead of spending anymore time talking about transfer, we need to start talking about how we can optimize the benefits we receive from those lands. Instead of an anti-public lands agenda, Montana should be pursuing a pro-public lands agenda that supports hunting, fishing, and other types of outdoor recreation that help sustain our way of life.
Last year, the Montana Office of Outdoor Recreation was established within the Governor’s Office of Economic Development to consolidate the various aspect of outdoor recreation – including infrastructure, marketing, community development, outdoor industry, research, and education – into a single office. That will help small towns across Montana, including Lewistown, find ways of enhancing the hunting and fishing opportunities in our backyards. Utah’s Governor, Gary Herbert, created his state’s Office of Outdoor Recreation in 2013. That office has since helped oversee a boom in the state’s outdoor recreation economy, with outdoor gear manufacturers flocking to the state.
To maximize our outdoor recreation economy, we need to ensure that we have access to public lands. To accomplish that, a public access specialist will investigate legitimate concerns from the public and – when needed – help open up inaccessible places that all Montanans have a right to.
Another great non-partisan tool for helping maximize our outdoor recreation economy and enhancing our hunting and fishing opportunities is a state program that Republicans and Democrats working together created in 1987. Funded almost entirely from nonresident hunting licenses, Habitat Montana is our state’s only mechanism for purchasing easements and private land to support fish and wildlife conservation. It’s also been used to provide access to previously inaccessible public lands.
Lawmakers hobbled Habitat Montana during the last session when they passed a new law that prevents the public from acquiring new wildlife habitat for two years. We need to restore and unfreeze the program as part of an agenda that embraces public lands and our outdoor way of life.
Hunting, fishing and other forms of outdoor recreation are not partisan issues in Montana. And, these ideas for enhancing our outdoor recreation economy aren’t based on ideology or party politics. These are sensible ideas for our state. No matter which party wins the gubernatorial race or the majority in our Legislature, it would still be in Montana’s best interest to advance a strong, pro-public lands agenda.

Harvey Nyberg is a retired wildlife biologist and regional supervisor for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and a Lewistown resident.

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