Wild Word

Home Wild Word Outdoor Recreation Now the Largest Sector of Montana's Economy
Pine Creek Lake. Photo by Walker Stole
Aug 04 2017

Outdoor Recreation Now the Largest Sector of Montana’s Economy

Governor Bullock's Office of Outdoor Recreation now makes more sense than ever, as does taking good care of our public lands

Featured, In the Media

Last week, the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) confirmed what many in our state have known for some time – that outdoor recreation is not only intrinsic to our way of life in Montana, it is also one of the most crucial parts of our economy. According to OIA’s new figures, outdoor recreation is now the largest sector of Montana’s economy, generating over $7 billion per year in consumer spending and supporting over 70,000 jobs that pay more than $2 billion worth of wages. These numbers, while eye-popping, are even more impressive when you realize that they don’t even account for indirect economic effects, such as the thousands of start-ups and small businesses that choose to locate here to take advantage of our outdoor way of life.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the report is that the old “economy versus conservation” dichotomy no longer applies. As this data shows, our economy actually depends on conservation of our public lands. Not only are public lands critical to the clean air and water that make our communities livable, they are what make the outdoor recreation economy tick: the hikers, bikers, and recreationists of all stripes spending billions of dollars here each year are drawn to Montana by the beauty and accessibility of our public lands and waters.

This report from OIA makes clear that Montana is home to a thriving industry of small businesses, an industry that is resilient, even in times of economic downturn. But, just like other key sectors of our economy, we can’t expect this industry to grow if we don’t have the right policies in place.

A common-sense and much-needed first policy step is the creation of Montana’s own Office of Outdoor Recreation. Governor Steve Bullock announced last week that he will create this office in September. MWA applauds Gov. Bullock taking this important step.

Despite the enormous influence that outdoor recreation plays in our state’s economy, we have never had an office dedicated to supporting and growing that sector. While several different agencies manage various pieces of the outdoor recreation economy – State Parks, Office of Tourism, Office of Economic Development, for instance – we lack a unified and strategic approach to this massive piece of our economy.

This new Office of Outdoor Recreation could play several critical roles in our outdoor recreation economy. One of its top priorities should be to expand the outdoor recreation economy map in Montana and help rural communities across the state gain access to the resources they need to more fully capture the benefits of that economy. Those resources could include grant opportunities to strengthen trail systems and improve outdoor infrastructure. Likewise, the office could be an important advocate for rural business owners, such and outfitters and guides, who have ideas on how to improve Montana's regulatory environment and promote outdoor tourism.

Another priority should be to protect our public lands. For our outdoor economy to thrive, we must reaffirm our commitment to keeping our public lands intact, well-managed, and accessible, especially as visitation continues to rise. That means, at a minimum, rejecting efforts to transfer ownership or management to the state, a move that would compel the state to either industrialize or sell off those lands just to keep the state from going bankrupt. It also means strengthening and supporting efforts to protect wildlands and investing in outdoor recreation infrastructure. Keeping our public lands in prime condition – with clean water, clear trails, abundant wildlife, and beautiful vistas – is, after all, the right economic choice.
________________________________________________________________________________

This report from OIA makes clear that Montana is home to a thriving industry of small businesses, an industry that is resilient, even in times of economic downturn. But, just like other key sectors of our economy, we can’t expect this industry to grow if we don’t have the right policies in place.

_________________________________________________________________________________
Finally, the office should serve as advocate for properly funding our public land management agencies. We rely on the Park Service, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and other agencies to maintain trails, trailheads, campgrounds, and other infrastructure on our public lands. Without that infrastructure in place, we can’t expect our outdoor recreation economy to continue to thrive. Right now, these agencies are facing a budget crisis, and the Office of Outdoor Recreation could serve as a powerful voice in persuading our elected officials to adequately fund those agencies.

Every community in our state has something to offer when it comes to outdoor recreation and has the potential to use outdoor recreation to improve the quality of life for its residents and attract new visitors, businesses, and investment. From Libby to Broadus and everywhere in-between, communities are looking for opportunities to expand outdoor recreation in their backyards. We hope this office helps more of them harness the power of this growing sector of our economy.

- Kayje Booker, MWA state policy director