Judging from the number of people on the streams and trails the past few months, it’s easy to say that we all share the same objectives in our Montana summer; recreation, recreation and more recreation.
The challenge? It’s busier out there than it used to be. From front country to back country recreation, we are all loving our public lands more than ever. State park visitation will break another all-time high this year with around 2.7 million visits—up 50 percent since 2011. Trails are more crowded. Securing your favorite campsite can be a challenge. The rivers are busier with anglers, guides and more people floating for pleasure.
It’s natural to wonder where this is all headed, and reasonable to expect things to be even busier 10 years from now. The key is to start planning for it, rather than ignoring the obvious. We must start managing recreation better in this state rather than pretending the upward trends will go away. We need to move past either-or debates about our outdoors and talk about how we manage them in a way that preserves, but prepares, for the inevitable continued use.
In this election season, we hear a lot of talk about the outdoors and a lot of talk about infrastructure. But there is very little discussion about outdoor infrastructure. Outdoor infrastructure doesn’t mean putting a Marriott next to our favorite fishing hole. It means more managed recreation offerings like hiking and biking trails, campsites and boat ramps.
The trouble is, these resources have not seen serious investment in decades, either at the state or federal level. Similar to our roads and cities, our outdoors are in dire need of infrastructure investment. If we don't invest in maintaining and staffing our cherished places we run the risk of causing economic damage to ourselves, and degrading the very reason so many of us live here in the first place.
The recently announced Governor's Office of Outdoor Recreation is a good start, and could provide a critical step in the planning and investment we need to appropriately manage these recreation resources now and into the future. Montana’s recreation industry needs a champion at the highest levels of government, and a statewide vision for our resource protection is essential in our continuing to be able to love our outdoor treasures.
Included in this vision is an elevated and better-funded state park system. State Parks is the only division in state government that is equipped to manage outdoor recreation, and it needs to be much stronger.
Outdoor recreation is a pillar of our economy, and our counties and federal agencies need to start funding it appropriately. They need to realize that recreation is not only an industry in and of itself - worth $6 billion to Montana alone - but like good schools and hospitals, diverse recreation opportunities are also the foundation of vibrant, livable communities.
Imagine if Montana had a world-class recreation infrastructure that matched our world-class outdoors. Imagine more state parks and recreation areas in central and eastern Montana, which are currently so underserved. Imagine more paddling trails on the Yellowstone, the Clark Fork or Flathead Lake. Imagine better connectivity and trail linkages between our towns, state parks and other public lands. Imagine more tools and better funding to embrace a recreation future.
To accomplish this we need support from our decision-makers, but we also need you, the recreationist. We need you to start advocating for the infrastructure you need. Take stock of your summer and what you saw out there. Imagine your summer 10 years from now if we keep doing nothing. Or better yet, imagine just how good Montana's outdoor infrastructure could be given the right attention.
Jeff Welch is CEO of Bozeman-based Mercury CSC and a founding member of the Montana State Parks Foundation (montanastateparksfoundation.org).