Community Conversations Take Off in Montana

Campsites are too crowded, and the amenities aren’t well taken care of, one person said. That’s because the sites are just too cheap, another attendee offered.Montanans don’t want barriers to our public lands, but also want to help preserve what’s left, said one attendee.

Those were among the topics brought up by the more than 30 people at the Montana Outdoor Heritage Project’s Community Conversation in Great Falls, a wide-ranging, two-hour discussion about the status of public lands, wildlife and working land in the state of Montana.

Just a Typical Community Conversation

This meeting was just a typical community conversation hosted by the Montana Outdoor Heritage Project. The project, a collaborative effort that brings together citizens from across Montana to discuss the opportunities and threats to Montana’s shared outdoor way of life, is hoping to host 50 conversations this summer, and has already hosted just over twenty.

“We want to listen to what Montanans have to say,” said Karrie Kahle, grassroots organizer for the project, which is also trying to hear from over 10,000 Montanans through an online survey. “The more diverse a crowd the better.”

In Great Falls, attendees ranged from snowmobiling enthusiasts and outdoor store owners to elected officials and state employees. At the beginning of the discussion, each person introduced themselves and said what they like to do outdoors, and answers included everything from sailing to hunting and fishing to hiking in the backcountry.

That diversity is important because the project isn’t trying to dictate answers on how to better fund Montana’s great outdoors, but is trying to hear what people want and how we can figure out how to better pay for it, Kahle said.

“We want to hear from all sorts of different folks, conservation folks, farmers, ranchers, all sorts of people – urban, rural, and in-between,” Kahle said.

How do they Work?

In each community, a volunteer or group of volunteers hosts these public events at local eateries, libraries, or other public venues. Crowds range anywhere from six people to over forty depending on the community.

Hosts ask four questions, and attendees discuss their answers together:

  • How would you describe Montana’s Outdoor Heritage?
  • What challenges do you see to our outdoor way of life? Are you noticing or experiencing changes to our public lands or outdoor infrastructure?
  • What ideas do you have for protecting or caring for our outdoor way of life and heritage?
  • If we had a dedicated source of funding, what challenges or ideas would you prioritize?

The challenges aren’t the same everywhere, so answers differ significantly from place to place, said Eric Melson, a member of the project’s steering committee who helped facilitate the discussion in Great Falls.

Great Falls Mayor Bob Kelly, who co-hosted the event, said while some areas of the state are running into issues like having tourists populating favorite fishing holes or filling up the parking lot of their favorite trailheads, he knows Great Falls has other issues.

“We don’t have that problem here,” Kelly said.

Instead, Kelly said he knows that many people are frustrated with the lack of environmental education being given to school children, or even adults. Maybe more money should go into education, he said.

“It’s as important to us as breathing,” Kelly said.

Gerry Jennings, a co-host of the event and well-known community activist, said children spend too much time on their phones, and they should try to find a way to get kids outside.

Many Montanans say it’s important to find opportunities to get kids outdoors. Photo – Montana State Parks.

Melson explained many of the issues that have developed with funding outdoor recreation, including fewer federal dollars going to trail maintenance and a backlog of maintenance at state parks. Attendees also learned about the recent success of Senate Bill 24, which was signed into law earlier this month by Gov. Steve Bullock and will help fund a dedicated trail program.

When it came to specific funding sources, attendees often said they would be willing to pay more – whether for campsites or in-state hunting tags – but also, with skyrocketing visitation to public lands, visitors should be paying more.

“They should have to pay something for using our quality resources, just like we do when we go to their cities and visit museums,” said one attendee.

The resources should also be spread to the two-thirds of the state that’s privately owned like farms and ranches, because much of that is dedicated to outdoor recreation like bird hunting and is a big part of the outdoor heritage of the state, attendees said.

No matter what, getting groups of people together is beneficial to help try to find solutions, said Jasmine Krotkov, a Democratic member of the Montana House from Niehart.

“When people feel they have their skin in the game, they do things like attend this meeting,” Krotkov said.

At the end, circling back to what people would want to do if there was a dedicated source of funding, people couldn’t agree on just one thing but agreed there are lots of needs.

“We have to do all of this,” said one attendee.

What do you think?

If you would like to join or host a community conversation in your area you can learn more here.