MISSOULA — Montanans care about their outdoor heritage and they’re willing to ante up to preserve it, according to a new survey.
For the past four months, the Montana Outdoor Heritage Project conducted a huge outreach effort to learn how Montanans interact with the outdoors and what it means to them.
The biggest takeaway from their new report, based on responses from about 11,000 people statewide, is that Montanans are concerned about population growth and how it could negatively affect various aspects of their outdoor heritage.
Residents of Missoula and Bozeman can’t ignore that growth is bringing big changes and many aren’t good. But even those in rural areas worry about growth as they watch people from out-of-state buy up ranches and occasionally bar access to public land.
In the online survey and several public meetings, participants said newcomers and absentee landowners “typically don’t respect traditional Montana values like providing access or taking care of neighbors.”
“I don’t want Montana to lose its unique character,” said Kaleb Retz, who works on affordable housing in Missoula and rides motorcycles. “Based on these results, growth and change is the biggest concern we heard in the community discussions. People across the state see these changes taking place, and I think it’s a shared concern. I’m glad to see the show of support and all these Montanans interested in problem solving.”
Montanans consider access to public lands to be a big factor of their outdoor heritage, according to the report, and almost 90% said loss of access was their biggest concern. That was followed by climate change and water pollution.
But when asked which of 10 issues they preferred to fund, protecting wildlife habitat with more than 80% support won out over improving public land access, which garnered about 63%. Improving water quality and controlling invasive species were also popular.
But opinions about funding were the big surprise, said Montana Wildlife Federation executive director Dave Chadwick.
More than 70% said they strongly supported more conservation funding, and more than half said they would support a small increase in state taxes to achieve that.
“That’s a big deal. It’s a recognition that this is something that Montanans find to be important,” Chadwick said. “Montanans aren’t always enthusiastic about taxes so I think that really demonstrates the depth of support and recognition of how important it is that we make an investment in our outdoor heritage.”
Christine Whitlatch, a MOHP volunteer, said the survey was big, but it wasn’t scientific in that it didn’t pick participants at random. The people who responded to the online survey were self-selecting and may over-represent younger outdoor enthusiasts. Those who attended the 50 community meetings are also those who are likely to be more engaged overall.
But Retz said people of diverse backgrounds came together at the meetings.
“We saw 78-year-old ranchers having intelligent conversations with 25-year-old college students that have very different political and life views. And they were in the same room discussing productive solutions to topics that they’re both passionate about,” Retz said. “I think that says a lot about where we’re at as a state and the mindset moving forward.”
Blackfoot Valley rancher Cole Mannix echoed that, pointing out that everyone values the same landscape – “it literally is our common ground” – but taking care of it takes money.
“None of that comes free,” Mannix said. “Personally, I see a need for better funding for working lands, for watershed level collaboration, particularly around wildlife that use both private and public lands. It’s good to see Montanans recognizing this need. What we have is not an accident.”
Mannix said ranchers’ success is affected by wildlife. So more money should be set aside to help landowners or small groups pay for efforts such as reimbursement for lost livestock and livestock carcass pickup programs, which benefit large carnivores. Currently, these are often self-funded, Mannix said, but they need to be expanded because working lands are critical to holding wild landscapes together.
Now that these results are known, the next step is having more conversations to come up with funding sources and working with state legislators to ensure the funding goes toward what the public thinks is important, Whitlatch said.
“Our goal is to find a made-in-Montana solution,” Whitlatch said. “We find a lot of hope in all the areas of common ground that we found among the people who participated. We’re looking to see how we can move forward and have a statewide discussion on state policy and funding.”
The Montana Outdoor Heritage Project is, according to its website, “a collaboration of Montana citizens, small businesses, conservation and recreation groups, and local communities interested in conserving, maintaining, and investing in our water, wildlife, working lands, and shared outdoor way of life.” Missoula County Commissioner Josh Slotnick is listed as a volunteer.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.