Cha-ching! That’s the sound celebrated at Sen. Jon Tester’s Last Best Outdoors Fest held in Columbia Falls last week. The theme was that Montana’s booming outdoor economy depends on our federal lands that provide hiking trails, climbing rocks, ski slopes, and scenery. According to Business for Montana Outdoors, 86,000 new service jobs were created in Montana between 2000 and 2015, but those jobs included the health care and real estate sectors, which also are booming.
Indeed, public lands provide a loud “cha-ching,” but that sound is louder in boardrooms of “the rock climbing industrial complex” than on Main Street Montana. In 2015, for example, North Face reported sales of $12.4 billion, REI sales of $2.4 billion, and Patagonia $750 million.
According to the national Outdoor Industry Association, the clothing and equipment sector boasts annual consumer spending of $7.1 billion in Montana, a small fraction of the $120 billion nationwide. Those sales, however, are not driven by Montana hunters looking to fill their freezers or the family hiking to a nearby waterfall. They are driven by the tourists who visit Yellowstone and Glacier, never venturing farther than a few hundred yards from pavement, and by millennials who don a down parka when the temperature falls below 60 degrees in Silicon Valley.
For those who do venture beyond parking lots, recreation, like the fest, is “absolutely free and open to everyone.” That free lunch comes at great cost to U.S. taxpayers. Every year the federal government takes in about 20 cents for every dollar it spends according to a study by the Property and Environment Research Center. That means the outdoor industry and its customers are heavily subsidized. In contrast, the same study showed that our federal lands take in almost $20 for every dollar spent on mineral land management.
So why is a practical Eastern Montana farmer and senator hosting an outdoor fest that drains the U.S. Treasury? The answer is that, like robbing a bank because that is where the money is, public lands are where the votes are. According to a Colorado College poll, 63 percent of Montanans call themselves conservationists, and most of these are millennials moving to the state believing that federal lands are not for logging, grazing, mining and oil drilling.
This also explains the $1.4 million ad campaign by Backcountry Hunters and Anglers attacking Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s national monument review. Yes, he will likely propose reducing the size of monuments such as Bears Ears at 1.35 million acres, but it won’t result in roughshod development on federal lands. Only a fraction of Bears Ears contains antiquities, while the rest may contain large oil and gas reserves. By attacking Zinke, such groups are really trying to garner more votes for Tester in the 2018 contest.
Our public lands are not going to go to the highest dollar bidder, but they do go to the highest vote bidder. The problem is that the political market place is neither fiscally nor environmentally prudent, and public land love fests will not change this.
Federal lands could be better managed and could be an asset for the U.S. Treasury. By insisting that they are free, we simply pad the pockets of big business. Real change will only come if those of us who use those lands pay for taking care of them. The same poll showing a plurality of Montanans are conservationists showed that 94 percent support improving and repairing infrastructure in national parks and outdoor destinations. If we actually paid realistic recreation fees, we could be the pipers calling the tune.