Emphasizing the estimated $6 billion economic power of outdoor recreation on Montana’s public lands, Gov. Steve Bullock on Thursday announced three steps to bolster public lands access in the state.

“These plans are not only the right thing to do for Montanans and their families and future generations, they’re also the right thing to do for Montana’s economy and our businesses,” Bullock said in a news conference in Billings’ Riverfront Park.

The governor told the group of about 30 people that he has directed the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to hire a public access specialist in an attempt to get anglers, hunters and other recreationists on to the state’s nearly 2 million acres of inaccessible public property.

“Montana’s public access specialist will be on call to troubleshoot concerns from the public, and when warranted to help open up inaccessible places that all Montanans have a right to,” Bullock told the group. “That can be anything from helping to unlock the padlock that shouldn’t be on a road or to helping find creative ways to figure out ways that we can access public lands.”

Rest of the plan

The other two prongs of the access initiative involve the Legislature. One would ask legislators to establish a Montana Office of Outdoor Recreation in the governor’s office of Economic Development. As described in a handout, the office would be “charged with developing and implementing a strategic plan for Montana to consciously shape our outdoor economic future” and to ensure the infrastructure is in place to “support the growth of the outdoor industry.”

Thirdly, the governor would like the Legislature to untie the restrictions it has placed on the spending of Habitat Montana funds. The Habitat Montana Program was created by the Legislature in 1987 to protect wildlife habitat through the purchase of conservation easements, leases or outright land buys. The program is funded mainly by nonresident hunting license fees.

Bullock said the current restrictions, which were placed on the fund by Republican legislators and don’t allow any land to be purchased, don’t make sense.

"It sounds like career politician Steve Bullock is doing gymnastic maneuvers to deflect attention from his C rating from the NRA," said Aaron Flint, GOP gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte's campaign spokesman. "If state agencies can't enhance and protect public access, then we need new leadership, not more bureaucracy."

Astute crowd

Gathered in the crowd were some of the area’s, and state’s, most ardent wildlife and public land access activists.

John Gibson, who helped found the Public Lands/Waters Access Association, which has fought to restore access along several roads across the state, said he appreciates Bullock’s attempts but worries that nothing will get done.

“I come from a bureaucracy, the Forest Service, where you see a lot of plans and positions that went nowhere,” Gibson said. “I think the governor is sincere, but he’ll be challenged at every corner by the Legislature.”

The Bureau of Land Management’s Montana-Dakotas office created an access specialist position in 2008 to great fanfare, but budget cutbacks and changes in administration seemed to blunt that effort. In the past two sessions of the Legislature, there have been bills introduced that would require anyone who gated and padlocked a road previously open to public travel to first justify they had the right to close it, instead of the current situation where landowners block access and leave it up to the county or private individuals to contest the closure in court. Both bills never made it out of committee, Gibson said.

“The good-old-boy system is alive and well” in the Legislature and in county government, Gibson said.

Governor's race

Access has become a prominent issue in this year’s governor’s race after it was reported that Gianforte sued Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks over an easement across his Bozeman property. Gianforte has said the lawsuit was not about denying the public access through his property along the East Gallatin River in Bozeman, but the lawsuit has made political hay for the Bullock campaign.

Gianforte was also recorded saying at a campaign stop in Malta that FWP is “at war” with landowners in the state trying to “extract access and using extortion to do it.”

Bullock took a few swipes at Gianforte, a self-made multi-millionaire, by saying, “In our state, the size of your checkbook doesn’t designate whether you can spend a day alone with a fly rod on a river. You don’t have to own a big piece of property to experience some of the best hunting and fishing in the world. Experiences that people around the world truly feel lucky if they can experience once in their lifetime.”

Gianforte has said he supports recreational access to public lands, the state’s stream access law and does not back a state takeover of federal lands being pushed by some conservative groups.

Economic indicators

Bullock’s message about the importance of public land access to Montana’s economy was echoed at Thursday’s presentation by The Base Camp outdoor store founder Scott Brown, executive director of Visit Billings Alex Tyson and Zoo Montana director Jeff Ewelt.

“The great thing about public lands is they don’t discriminate,” Ewelt said. “They are part of our American heritage.”

A recent survey examining the importance of public lands to Montanans was also cited by the speakers, including University of Montana professor Rick Graetz. He noted that across political boundaries the poll found Montanans were united in their support of public lands.

“The thing I took away from our poll is that public lands are a catalyst for our economy,” Graetz said.

“So, governor, you’ve read Montanans well,” Graetz said. “I think what you’re proposing is going to be a beacon to people around the United States: entrepreneurs, people with small businesses, who know the value of natural amenities to an educated workforce. I think what you’re doing is going to be a real set of fireworks for Montana’s economy as we go forward.”