It’s no secret. Montana is growing and changing before our very eyes. More people are visiting our state, and more people are settling down here. This growth has largely been fueled by our state’s natural competitive advantage - our beauty, open spaces and ample recreational opportunities.
But as Montana grows, more demands are being placed on the public lands, parks, and wildlife habitat that shape our lives. It’s essential that Montana’s current state legislature help us meet this rising demand by adequately funding our great outdoors, or we risk overwhelming the public lands on which we’ve built our lives and livelihoods.
Now is the time to have this conversation. Despite skyrocketing popularity, the funding that supports state parks, fishing access sites, conservation of farms and ranches, outdoor recreation, and wildlife has remained stagnant over the last decade, and the effects are easy to see.
It’s too soon to tell whether the current Montana Legislature will prioritize funding Montana’s outdoor way of life, but I sincerely hope it will. There are numerous public lands bills currently under consideration, and we all should follow important legislation as it works its way through our state legislature.
First, the good. SB24 would take steps to rectify the budgetary shortfalls that are threatening to cripple our state parks, fishing access sites, and trail and recreational facilities.
Introduced by Sen. Terry Gauthier of Helena and sponsored in the House by Rep. Tom Welch of Dillon, SB24 would increase the optional Montana State Parks’ portion of the light vehicle registration fee from $6 to $9, generating an estimated $2 million annually for the parks, trails, and fishing sites that are so critical to our way of life. The bill won’t solve our public lands funding crisis (state parks alone are facing a $22 million maintenance backlog) but it would be a crucial first step in the right direction.
Another step in the right direction is SB341, sponsored by Sen. Mark Blasdel of Kalispell. The legislation would use existing state funding to increase public lands access and improve cooperation between landowners and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. The bill would facilitate public land access agreements and compensate willing landowners who allow access to public lands through their private land. Over 1.5 million acres of public lands are landlocked and inaccessible in Montana, and SB341 would be an important step towards securing access for all Montanans.
Next, the bad. SB242, introduced by Sen. Roger Webb of Billings, would handicap funding for our great outdoors. Not to be confused with SB24, SB242 would scrap the current voluntary $6 vehicle registration fee in favor of a $35 windshield decal. Legislative analysis suggests the bill would cost our parks $3.7 million in coming years and force the department to eliminate 11 full-time positions. That’s a colossal step in the wrong direction.
And finally, the ugly. Those of us who hunt, fish, and support the prerogative of private landowners to make informed decisions about their own private lands should monitor HB265. Introduced by Rep. Kerry White, HB265 would make it harder for Montana to utilize Habitat Montana funds to conserve wildlife habitat, keep farms and ranches in production, and improve public access to private lands.
The Habitat Montana program is a state funding source that has conserved and opened access to over 300,000 acres of prime hunting grounds while helping ranching families keep their lands in production. HB265 would create a new level of bureaucracy by requiring land board approval of these conservation easements. The current land board has already tried to prevent beneficial projects from moving forward, including a project to open 20,000 acres of public access in Wibaux and Dawson Counties while providing the landowner an opportunity to further their own legacy for their family.
Our outdoor opportunities and public lands represent the best of us. They support our outdoor way of life and provide important venues for our families and communities to come together. The Legislature must prioritize more sustainable funding for our public lands and outdoor opportunities. If we fail to invest in our public lands, we will have abrogated our responsibility to future generations, leaving the door wide open for our heritage to slip away.