MISSOULA — Several Missoula businesses credit their success to the state’s outdoor economy and the role a healthy environment has played in its transformation into a $7 billion industry.
While many companies based in Missoula often credit the region’s recreational opportunities for attracting and keeping skilled talent, those tied directly to the outdoors say a clean environment and access to public lands are vital to their success.
“When I started guiding over 20 years ago, the Blackfoot River was mostly known as the ‘scenic’ river,” said Tony Reinhardt of Montana Trout Outfitters in Missoula. “It’s where we took anglers to look around at the natural beauty, enjoy the scenery and maybe catch a few fish if they were lucky. It wasn’t a major fishery when I started, but it has seen big improvements and it’s now one of our best fisheries around Missoula.”
Reinhardt is one of several Montana business owners backing Sen. Jon Tester’s Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act. The measure, which has been stalled in committee for years, would protect portions of the headwaters of the Blackfoot River by adding new wilderness and allowing for other forms of outdoor recreation.
Politics aside, Reinhardt said his clients and customers request the Blackfoot more than any other river. But it wasn’t always that way. Steady stewardship has brought the river back from the brink, placing it among the region’s premier watersheds.
“Our rivers and fisheries have been on a roller coaster ride over the past 50 years,” he said. “While rivers like the Madison, Yellowstone and Big Horn made Montana famous for fly fishing, Missoula wasn’t really on the map.
“That’s definitely not the case anymore,” he added. “It’s due to the improvement of our fisheries over the past 20 years. Missoula is one of the top fly fishing destinations in the West, and a big piece of that is the Blackfoot River.”
Todd Frank, owner of the Trailhead in Missoula, offered similar sentiments. His business opened just 10 years after the Bob Marshal Wilderness was established by Congress.
Back then, he said, those keyed to the outdoors were often labeled as “hippies” or “granolas.” Now, the outdoors is considered mainstream and the recreation economy has grown to become a $7 billion industry in Montana.
“What I recognize now, our customers then and are still today the basis for the recreation-based economy,” Frank said. “Our business grew in the 70s and 80s with this whole idea of recreation being in our DNA. We watched that user group slowly grow out into the broad spectrum of the community.”
The region’s outdoor economy and reputation have helped Frank grow his business. He recently moved the Trailhead into a larger Midtown facility offering 14,000 square feet of space to showcase all things related to river sports.
The Blackfoot River and other regional watersheds are a big part of that, he said.
“Missoula is a draw for businesses that want to operate in the region, and the recreational piece of that is a huge part of their recruiting,” said Frank. “Without clean rivers and good access to public lands, I don’t even have a business. It’s the reason why people want to be in the Missoula area.”