Montana is a great place to live, work, and play. Visitors from every corner of the planet come to explore our rivers, mountain valleys, and world class skiing. How can Montana transform these eco-tourists into place-loving residents?
On Friday, March 21st, I was honored to join the Montana Ambassadors on a panel to address this question and more at their annual conference in beautiful Big Sky, Montana. The Ambassadors include business leaders, government officials, and community partners in their effort to promote and protect what we most love about the Big Sky state.
Here’s my theory: Montana’s unbelievable public lands attract new business and are the underpinning of Montana’s strong economy. Our public lands, rivers, and lakes shape and define us.
As it turns out, I’m not alone in this public land love. These ideas are deeply ingrained in Montanans.
Here’s a typical summer scene from my childhood. Can you identify with this scenario?
Picture a lanky 9 year-old-girl wearing third generation, hand-me-down jeans and an old ball cap trying to keep up with her dad on a rocky mountain trail. Keeping up was no easy task, considering Dad was a 6’2 timber-worker. Together, father and daughter searched weekly for another unexplored alpine lake, a waterfall, a mountain view in their little corner of Northwestern Montana. Regardless of the day’s itinerary, he’d say “Sarah, look around. All of this – these trees, this trail, this wildlife – this belongs to us. We’re not rich, but we are special. We’re Montanans.”
Later in life I understood how Montana’s Constitution and laws set us apart. Ever visit Texas? No offense to the Lone Star State, but not a lot of back roads for a weary traveler to (legally) set up camp for the night. Go to California for an untrammeled glance of the sea? It might take you hours to drive to public land, and twice as long to find a campsite. Colorado might be better for those who love to hike and ski, but private landowners largely control access to the best trout streams.
Montanans, on the other hand, have a constitutional right to a “clean and healthful environment,” and all of us are charged by that constitution to protect our public land, air and water. Our stream access law gives us room to roam and the right to fish, float or even stroll along the banks of our navigable water ways up to the high water mark. In return, anglers flock to our blue ribbon trout streams year round, from the Stillwater to the North Fork of the Flathead.
Numerous studies highlight the sheer economic benefit of public lands, and in particular, wild places to the west. In January 2013, our friends at Headwaters Economics recently demonstrated that protected, federal lands increase per capita income.
At the Montana Ambassadors’ conference, business leaders, government officials and community partners explored how to keep visitors exploring, and how to capture their best ideas and make them our own. For those of us who love to hike and explore our state parks, remember that our tax dollars pay for the state agencies maintain and protect them. Think about the roads that lead to your favorite trailhead, and the ranger who manages your most treasured wilderness area or national park. Public land and water are part of the public infrastructure, a worthy investment managed and paid for by all of us.
We are charged by those who came before us to protect what we most love about our special place – the clean air and water, the uncommon beauty, and the amazing access to public land and water. As stewards of this place, we must maintain the infrastructure –the trails, roads and river access points, and the public employees who do this critical work. And in return, our abundant land and water will continue to set us apart from our neighbors, providing the time and space to connect to family or ourselves, and bringing new entrepreneurs and their investment and jobs.