There is a strong appetite for new state funding to support wildlife protection, improve public access, and conserve more working lands in Montana according to new findings by the Montana Outdoor Heritage Project (MOHP).
The findings are based on a significant statewide public outreach effort that solicited input from one percent of the state’s population, including 50 community conversations and 11,000 individual survey responses collected from Montana residents between May and September.
“This was a massive effort to understand what Montanans value, what they are concerned about, and how we should move forward together as a state to protect our outdoor heritage,” said Christine Whitlatch, a volunteer for the Montana Outdoor Heritage Project based in Billings.
Whitlatch cautioned that while every effort was made to ensure geographic, ethnic and political diversity in the outreach, results should not be considered a scientific poll because more people participated from easier to reach areas.
Support for Dedicated Funding
Results of the outreach show a majority of survey respondents – a whopping 83 percent – say they would support more dedicated funding, even if it means increasing some state taxes.
In addition to more funding, Montanans suggested they would like to see more public-private partnerships created to address conservation needs, forums to give communities more input into how funding is spent, and better education opportunities for visitors and youth.
“My takeaway is Montanans are ready to invest more in our state’s outdoor resources,” said Dave Chadwick of the Montana Wildlife Federation. “The data suggests this is coming from a shared concern about the pace of growth and how its impacting Montana’s land, water, and wildlife.”
A Shared Value
According to the report, Montana’s outdoor heritage is a shared value regardless of where participants live, how much money they make, or whether they use the outdoors for work or play.
That’s no surprise according to Cole Mannix, a fifth-generation rancher from the Blackfoot Valley and associate director of Western Landowners Alliance.
“Rural or urban, we all depend on Montana’s land and water,” said Mannix. “In rural areas, people focused on passing on the responsibility for agriculture and land stewardship to future generations. While in urban areas, people focused on the value of outdoor recreation and protecting wildlife and public access. Those values can work hand-in-hand, especially when you can bring more funding to the table.”
Assessing Challenges and Priorities
Protecting wildlife habitat and ensuring public access are the top issues to address in the state according to the 11,000 Montanans who ranked funding priorities.
Eighty-six percent of those surveyed say loss of access is the most important challenge facing the state’s outdoor heritage.
When asked to rank how funding should actually be allocated, protection of fish and wildlife was the most important priority according to 81 percent of survey respondents. That was followed by water quality improvements (73 percent), invasive species control (69 percent), improving access to public lands (63 percent), and protecting places to hunt and fish (57 percent).
When it comes to creating new revenue to invest in these priorities, participants suggested a diversity of options. However, there are two areas where Montanans found the most common ground.
Participants generally agreed that out-of-state visitors should be asked to contribute a higher share of new funding compared with state residents. Suggestions included giving gateway communities more leeway to impose sales-tax on visitors and higher fees for out-of-state second homeowners or vacation homes.
There was also agreement that Montana should diversify user revenue beyond the sale of hunting and fishing licenses by asking more outdoor users to invest in land and wildlife protection. Suggestions included a sales tax on outdoor gear and new user fees or licenses for non-hunting and non-fishing outdoor activities.
The Montana Outdoor Heritage Project is hopeful that some of these ideas will eventually advance into state policy, but it will take additional work. The team, which consists of about 40 volunteer ambassadors and staff from supporting organizations, plans to share survey results with lawmakers and decision-makers in coming months to encourage further conversation and action in advance of the 2021 legislative session.
“At the end of the day, we are pursuing a Montana-made solution to long-term conservation of our state’s rich natural resources, and now we have a number of ideas to bring forward to our lawmakers for consideration,” said Chadwick.