Will Gianforte honor his promise about investing in access, habitat?

December 26, 2022 4:57 am

A favorite trail in Missoula in the North Hills. People are moving to Montana for access to the outdoors, according to an MSU Extension study. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

Last month, Gov. Greg Gianforte said that protecting public access and wildlife habitat were key parts of his public lands agenda. 

This month, he proposed a budget that slashes more than $30 million from the state’s best public access and habitat protection program, even while the state enjoys a historic $2 billion budget surplus.

A vast number of Montanans believe in robustly funding our public lands and access and expect the governor to back up his words with actions. He’s already strayed from the path Montanans have laid out for him: The tens of millions of dollars he’s proposing to cut were passed by Montana voters in 2020 and subsequently approved as part of the state’s biennial budget by the legislature and the governor barely 18 months ago. 

That money wasn’t taken from some other deserving program. It was brand new, coming from recreational marijuana tax revenue. The bill legalizing recreational marijuana stipulated that a specific percentage of tax revenue would be used to support public access and habitat conservation around the state. That initiative, called the Montana Outdoor Fund, was authorized by lawmakers during the 2021 legislative session.

The Montana Outdoor Fund includes Habitat Montana, the state’s premier program supporting public access and wildlife habitat. It’s also one of our best tools to maintain Montana’s working lands and provide access to treasured outdoor spaces by supporting conservation easements, which help landowners voluntarily protect their farms and ranches for the next generation while increasing public access to open lands at the same time.

In fact, the state just used Habitat Montana to purchase the Big Snowy Mountains Wildlife Management Area, which improved access to almost 100,000 acres of public lands, including some of the state’s best elk habitat, while maintaining grazing opportunities. 

Montana is the only state in the country that’s voted to set aside recreational marijuana taxes for conservation, and it’s been extremely popular. So popular, in fact, that a University of Montana poll found 82% of Montana voters want to keep using recreational marijuana tax revenue to support “state parks, trails, public access, and wildlife habitat.”

The governor’s proposed budget includes a slight 3.8% increase in Habitat Montana funding for this biennium. The devil is in the details, though: The governor has proposed permanently removing this public access and conservation funding from Habitat Montana, eliminating a long-term funding source even while Montana sees unprecedented growth and the need to conserve wild lands and waters becomes ever more urgent.

Montana relies on robust economic impact from visitors who come to enjoy our outdoors. Specifically, visitors to the state (in 2021) contributed $5.5 billion in local spending, directly supporting $4.42 billion of economic activity across Montana.  

These visitors come primarily to access our public lands and waters, and while visitor spending is a major economic driver in our community, that amount of visitation also demands that we invest in access, infrastructure and habitat to protect our bottom lines and our way of life. If decision makers fail to understand this and invest accordingly, they’ll threaten the foundations our communities depend on, in Park County and across the state. 

These unique landscapes are a foundation for strong businesses, a recruiting tool, and the basis of a way of life that allows families across the state to thrive. Supporting them, especially when they’re facing unprecedented challenges, is unquestionably a crucial aspect of what “make(s) Montana Montana,” to borrow a phrase from the Governor’s public lands agenda press conference.

Montanans won’t rest until the state’s budget permanently and generously funds Habitat Montana, securing access to and protecting the value of our state’s treasured outdoor spaces. It’s time for Gianforte to honor his word, Montanans’ vote, and the legislature’s law and do what it takes to secure full and permanent funding for the public access and wildlife habitat we all depend on.

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Marne Hayes
Marne Hayes

Marne Hayes is the director for Business for Montana’s Outdoors, a statewide coalition of over 245 businesses across the state that advocate for the protection of our outdoors and outdoor recreation economy.