It’s time to stop promoting Montana

December 9, 2022 4:31 am

Visitors look on one of the balconies around the rotunda of the Montana Capitol on June 20, 2022 (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

They say “if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”

Not a day goes by that we don’t hear about the lack of affordable housing in Montana, the next big subdivision or resort — and the problems they face with water availability and the pollution they dump into rivers and streams. Yet, we continue to dig the hole ever deeper — not by accident, but by deliberative intense advertising and tourism promotion without equally deliberative concern about the ever-mounting impacts.

Simply put, every year more than 12 million tourists come to Montana — that’s 12 tourists for ever single resident. To those of us who live here, that seems like a lot of out-of-staters coming to crowd your fishing holes, cop your powder lines, shoot your elk and deer, and suck up every available camping site. And sorry to say it, but many seem to not understand the respect and common courtesies that define Montana’s “live and let live” reputation and ethic. They want to get whatever there is to get — and if you’re in their way, too bad.

Nor do many seem to understand the fragility of Montana’s resources. Nowadays it’s not unusual to find trout in our world-famous rivers covered with fungus — with hand prints in the fungus from being held out of the water to get just a few more shots for Instagram. Those pesky branches from the campsite trees in the way of your 45-foot RV? No problem, just cut ‘em off. That bag of garbage left over from your stay in a state park with a “pack it in, pack it out” policy? Toss it by the side of the road — someone will pick it up.

Somewhat amazingly and alarmingly, there is no dedicated state effort to determine the actual cost or impacts of this tourism tidal wave — nor whether state residents are all that happy about those impacts. Like so many of the thoughtless tourists, Montana’s politicians seem content to aggressively market any and every state resource without a thought for the sustainability of the very resources they’re marketing.

But of course it’s all about money…like always.
When the state’s tourism accommodation taxes bring in somewhere in the neighborhood of $80 million annually, why worry about the impacts – or whether Montanans are concerned about their diminishing quality of life, which is the primary reason we love living here?

At one time it made sense to levy a tax on motels, hotels and campgrounds to fund tourism promotion. But in this day and age, when “Yellowstone” is the most popular series on national television for 332 million Americans, the need to continue spending tens of millions of dollars annually on out-of-state advertising is no longer a priority — let alone endless summer season, winter season, and shoulder season promotions.

We’ve “been discovered” as they say. The challenge now is trying to find some of the silence and solitude, the courtesy and respect from others that was the true value of Montana in the past.
A month from now the Montana Legislature will convene for the regular 90-day session. And there’s a rare state budget surplus. Seems like a good time for those legislators to think about just how much more advertising Montanans need — or want.

Maybe most of those tens of millions of bed tax dollars should now go to address the impacts that have us “in the hole” on so many fronts. It’s not too late to stop digging that hole — but it’s long past time to quit promoting Montana and start shoveling the tourism money toward the tourism impacts.

George Ochenski is a longtime Helena resident, an environmental activist and Montana’s longest running columnist.

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