By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT
Gov. Steve Bullock on Friday touched on the progress of his Main Street Montana program and praised the state’s Medicaid expansion efforts, saying the achievements have been good for the state.
He also addressed Montana’s unresolved challenges, including the Legislature’s failure to pass an infrastructure bill.
“We should recognize that these needs are going to be there and are only compounding,” Bullock said. “We need to work on solutions to the infrastructure challenges, press forward to build on the state’s economic strengths, and continue to find ways to bring us together.”
Bullock served as the keynote speaker Friday at a two-day conference focused on “People and Place in the Rural American West.” Hosted by the University of Montana and Stanford University, the conference explored topics ranging from land use to homelessness as they pertain to the rural West.
Bullock focused his remarks primarily on issues facing rural Montana, touching on healthcare and economic security. Over the past few years, he said, the state has made headway on a number of fronts, including forest policy.
“It’s a place that’s often so contentious, but it’s also a place that we’ve actually made some meaningful difference by working both on forest health, getting logs on trucks, and collaboration,” Bullock said.
The governor described the state as vast, with 1 million people living across 147,000 square miles. It includes 129 incorporated cities, with most claiming a population of less than 1,000 people.
Of the state’s 56 counties, eight claim 75 percent of Montana’s total population.
“Think about both the challenges that presents and the opportunities,” he said. “Montana has extraordinary economic resources and strengths. We also face certain weaknesses and challenges, some of which are inherent.”
Bullock said agriculture remains the state’s leading industry. Montana has emerged as the world’s leading pea and lentil producer, he said. It also remains among the nation’s top wheat exporters and produces high-quality beef.
Bullock believes agriculture bridges urban and rural interests.
“Whether we live in the city or in rural areas, agriculture is essential to the economic survival of our state,” he said. “It’s important for all of us to understand that connection.”
Hours before Bullock’s arrival, a morning panel discussion explored the urban-rural divide and the rift in public opinion surrounding complicated land-use issues, including a push among some conservatives to give federal land back to the states.
Bullock said he was against such proposals, fearing that any effort to turn public land over to the state would lead to eventual privatization. He counts public access among his top goals and remains a staunch defender of stream access.
“We have significant tension in many of the Western states about the value of those public lands and whether they should ultimately be taken back,” he said. “We get more than 11 million visitors to Montana each year with an economic impact of $4 billion. They’re not coming for our Walmarts.”
Bullock added that quality of life bridges the urban-rural divide.
“You can be in Miles City or Missoula, and quality of life was named as the most important strength for our economic development in the state,” he said. “That can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but it’s clear that Montanans cherish our outdoor heritage.”