Opinion: Time for Gianforte, Legislature to restore funding for outdoor initiatives

Josh Olsen writes, “It’s time for Governor Gianforte and the Montana Legislature to do what voters elected them to do: honor the will of Montana voters by protecting the outdoor way of life that brings us together.”

It’s time for Governor Gianforte and the Montana Legislature to do what voters elected them to do: honor the will of Montana voters by protecting the outdoor way of life that brings us together.

In November, voters overwhelmingly approved I-190, a ballot initiative legalizing recreational marijuana sales. Language in that initiative made it clear that revenue from those sales would go to supporting and improving underfunded state parks, maintaining public trails, and boosting Habitat Montana, our state’s keystone public access and habitat protection program. However, in his proposed budget, Gov. Gianforte cut all the I-190 revenue that would have supported and maintained our public land programs.

Gov. Governor is failing to fund public lands as the voters directed at the same time as he’s giving a massive tax cut to the wealthiest Montanans and giving 20%+ pay raises to his cabinet appointments. Ignoring the will of the voters is antithetical to the democratic process, threatens Montana’s economic recovery, and seriously harms the future of the public lands that have been so central to my life, and the lives of hundreds of thousands of other Montanans.

As a hunter, angler and outdoor educator I’ve seen firsthand the impact that public lands can have on someone’s well being. I co-founded Montana Wilderness School because I wanted to ensure Montana youth, the future decision makers of this state, had opportunities to access public lands and experience the transformative forces of nature.

It’s incredible to see the improvement in a person’s self-confidence, resilience and happiness after just a few short days outdoors. It’s incredibly shortsighted and potentially harmful, especially when time outdoors is so vital to our health and happiness, to make these places harder for us to enjoy by funneling money away from their maintenance.

Montana’s state parks, open spaces, lakes, rivers, fish, and wildlife have been a lifeline for so many during the pandemic, there’s also a drastic economic cost if we don’t sufficiently fund their future. The opportunity to capitalize on the widespread benefits of our public lands has never been clearer.

In 2019, Headwaters Economics reported that the budget available to protect working farms and ranches, sustainably manage fish and wildlife resources, and maintain public recreation infrastructure like trails and fishing access sites fell short of what was needed by a staggering $60 million. These aren’t just numbers; this shortfall allows our boat ramps to fall into disrepair, our trails to disappear into the forest, and working farms and ranches to struggle towards increasingly uncertain futures.

Gov. Gianforte has made boosting Montana’s lagging economy the primary focus of his time in office. I expect he’s aware that our public lands support 71,000 jobs and generate $7.1 billion annually, making them one of our state’s biggest economic drivers. It stands to reason that he’d want to invest in this critical sector of our economy, not stand by and let it fall further into disrepair.

If you fished the rivers, or hunted public land or recreated on the trails this summer or fall you saw the crowded parking lots and boat ramps, and busy the trails. An unprecedented number of people visited Montana public lands in 2020, stretching the capacity of parks, trails, campgrounds, and other infrastructure past the breaking point.

The pressure is predicted to keep increasing, and we have an opportunity to make sure our infrastructure can keep pace. If it does, Montana will remain a great place to live and visit, and our economy will grow. If our outdoor infrastructure fails, we risk crippling our economy and throwing away one of Montana’s biggest competitive advantages.

The solution is clear. It doesn’t require increasing taxes, cutting spending, or robbing Peter to pay Paul. I-190 will make millions of dollars available to restore, improve, and maintain our parks, trails, boat ramps, habitat, and working lands. We just have to allocate it like the voters intended.

Gov. Gianforte promised to protect and support our public lands. He knows how valuable these resources are to our economy and way of life. The Legislature needs to do what the Governor did not and direct the additional revenue where it was intended: to our great outdoors, our way of life, and Montana’s economic recovery.

Josh Olsen, Montana Outdoor Heritage Project Ambassador, Bozeman