Today a coalition of Montanans launched a public outreach effort to gather Montanans’ ideas on how to enhance funding for private and public lands conservation, wildlife management, and outdoor access and recreation.
In coffee shops, libraries, churches, homes, and other gathering spots, the Montana Outdoor Heritage Project hopes to involve at least 10,000 Montanan across the state this summer. Residents are invited to participate directly in community conversations or provide input through an online survey.
Details about currently scheduled community conversations and a link to the survey are at www.montanaheritageproject.com.
“Montana has the best water, wildlife, and working lands in the country and we aim to keep it that way,” said Christine Whitlach, a Billings-based volunteer for the Project. “I know that Montanans from all walks of life care about the outdoors, but many of us don’t feel heard. The Heritage Project aims to change that by inviting all Montana residents to be a part of this.”
The Montana Outdoor Heritage Project is a collaboration among Montana citizens, small businesses, and conservation and recreation groups. The project brings together people of diverse perspectives who care about issues from protecting public access to resolving human-wildlife conflicts.
“We’re looking for Made-in-Montana solutions to address Montana problems whether that’s protecting farms and ranches from development, protecting our access to hunt and fish, or combating the growing plague of invasive species,” said Montana Wildlife Federation Executive Director Dave Chadwick. “We are a big tent effort because these issues touch down in everyone’s backyard.”
A Growing Need
Funding for state wildlife and agricultural programs is often taken for granted, said Cole Mannix, Associate Director of the Western Landowners Association.
“Working lands and watershed-level collaboration around wildlife, agriculture and natural resources make essential contributions to Montana’s outdoor heritage that are not sustained by accident,” said Mannix. “This is a timely opportunity to discuss how best to ensure this heritage today and for posterity.”
For years, Montanans across the state have been pointing to symptoms of insufficient funding:
- More than 1.5 million acres of public lands in Montana are “landlocked” by private ownership, with no legal public access.
- Montana State Parks suffer from a $22 million maintenance backlog, while visitation has increased 34 percent in the past decade.
- Fish Wildlife and Parks recently reported a 66 percent increase in calls related to grizzly bears in and around the Northern Continental Divide ecosystem.
- Experts estimate invasive mussels could cost Montana $234 million per year if they become established
Although the outdoor economy supports thousands of Montana jobs, roughly three percent of Montana’s most recently passed state budget is dedicated to the agencies and programs that manage land, water, and wildlife.
Statewide polling from earlier this year found a plurality of voters are in favor of increasing local taxes or fees in order to enhance conservation funding. The annual Colorado College poll found sixty-six percent of Montanans to be in support of generating more funds to ‘protect water, conserve wildlife habitat, and ensure opportunities for outdoor recreation.”
“This is about trying to find a reasonable and practical path forward to expand the size of the pie that sustains our collective outdoor heritage,” said Chadwick.
Momentum from 2019 Legislative Session
Timing is right for such a conversation, said Bob Walker, chair of the Montana Trails Coalition, given the bipartisan agreement among lawmakers during the 2019 legislative session to begin addressing these needs. This session, Montana lawmakers passed new modest funding measures to support state parks, trails, fishing access sites and public lands. These measures include SB 24 and SB 341.
“I witnessed bipartisan agreement I haven’t seen in decades to better support our state parks, public trails, and public access,” said Walker. “Although we got some really good bipartisan agreements passed, more work needs to be done.”
Recommendations in October
The Montana Outdoor Heritage Project will seek community input through September 23rd. In October, the Heritage Project plans to release survey results and publish recommendations based on community input.
“This is all about listening to Montanans,” said Karrie Kahle of Livingston, who is helping organize community conversations across the state. “We will see what Montanans want to do and we will make those recommendations.”