You are invited to join the Heritage Project

I invite you to join the Montana Outdoor Heritage Project. Outdoor access is something so many of us enjoy, value and maybe even take for granted. The Heritage Project is a way to engage and to give our voices to a conversation to protect and invest in our public lands. This is one of the most important conversations we may ever have as a state. It’s about passing on our very Montana way of life to our kids and grandkids.

Montana has a long history of conservation and providing access to public lands and resources. As citizens we have created a world-class network of public lands and trails, fishing and water access sites, wildlife management areas, miles of public shoreline and 55 unique state parks. These hubs for outdoor recreation have been built over decades and today provide some of the most important assets to local communities and to our outdoor heritage.

Yet, as Montana has changed and grown we have not kept up with demand for these public resources. We spend less today to manage our trails, public lands, state parks, and wildlife than we did 40 years ago. This is happening even as visitor use and outdoor recreation continue to increase at impressive rates.

So why did an eastern Montana girl like me get involved? For me it’s about access. I’ve spent the past three decades championing the idea of access; access to services through special education, access for housing, access for women and entrepreneurs, access to the civic process. Those are all very important issues, but one of our most important types of access in Montana is our ability to enjoy public lands and public spaces. These are the places you don’t need to be rich to enjoy as a family.

Every Montanan has a memory or a story that happened because of access to these public lands and recreation areas. My family is most connected to Montana’s prairies and the badlands near Wibaux and Glendive, but I’m certain your family has your own special spot.

These outdoor assets contribute to our communities by attracting visitors from down the road and from around the world. Our public campsites, fishing sites, boating launches and trails connect our communities with beautiful, unique and wild spaces. This outdoor infrastructure anchors our growing tourism economy and creates opportunities to build physical and mental wellness as well as a sense of community.

But why now? Why should you join the conversation?

Consider that Montana State Park visitation has more than doubled since 2000 and is now annually over 2.5 million. Consider that compared to our neighbors, Montana has the second lowest parks budget in the region. Consider that over 115 trail projects to improve our communities couldn’t get off the ground since 2014. Consider that our wildlife managers don’t have the resources to deal with another potential fish die-off on the Yellowstone River or somewhere else.

These facts clearly demonstrate the need to at least begin a conversation centered on prioritizing and discovering creative funding formulas that could address the needs to protect access, wildlife, and the continued use of our public lands. We should also investigate investment strategies that go beyond money. If we are going to uphold our commitment to provide authentic outdoor experiences through our state parks, trails, water resources, and hunting grounds we must start somewhere.

I invite you to join me and lend your voice, your thoughts, concerns and ideas to the Montana Outdoor Heritage Project. Become part of the conversation from your kitchen table, your community, your own backyard.

Christine Whitlatch, originally from Wibaux, is a mother of five, and has spent decades building a professional career in advocacy, public relations and nonprofit management She lives in Billings.