Opinion: Conservation community calls on leadership to fight for public lands

Conservation advocates around the state are watching closely to see what Montana’s new governor and legislature mean for our public lands. We’re ready to ensure that our leadership makes conserving, funding, and securing access to our public lands a priority. On that note, here’s what the conservation community is calling on Gov. Greg Gianforte and the legislature to do during the 2021 session,

In November, voters passed ballot initiatives legalizing recreational marijuana sales. One of those initiatives, I-190, directed revenue from those sales to key public lands and access programs including Habitat Montana, the state’s premier conservation initiative. Habitat Montana is the state’s best tool for protecting critical wildlife habitat, maintaining working lands, and providing public access.

Gov. Gianforte has already proposed funneling that revenue away from Habitat Montana and other public lands initiatives. Continuing down this path would set a dangerous precedent by contradicting the will of the voters, harm Montana’s economic recovery, and hurt the access, wildlife habitat, and working lands that are so central to our way of life.

Additionally, the governor and the legislature need to honor the benchmarks set by previous legislatures. It needs to stand by the Environmental Quality Council’s report encouraging collaborative local solutions for wilderness study areas. And it needs to secure critical state parks and trails funding by granting spending authority to the trails grant program established by SB24 during the 2019 legislature.

Montana has built its brand on outdoor access. People come from around the world to fish and float our rivers, climb our mountains, and hunt our grasslands and forests. These places continue to exist because of the foresight of those who’ve taken care to protect them. Now, though, after unprecedented use and decades of underfunding, our outdoor resources are struggling. Boat ramps are slipping into rivers, access roads are impassable or gated off, wildlife is under pressure, and working lands are facing uncertain futures.

These issues need to be addressed, and soon, before the consequences hit our wallets and our way of life.

By properly funding programs and initiatives that invest in new and existing public and working lands – including Habitat Montana, the Lower Yellowstone River Coalition’s proposal, and the Somers Beach State Park purchase – we can help ensure all Montanans (and the visitors who drive our economy) have reliable and equitable access to public lands and the recreation, sustenance, and economic benefits they provide.

Gov. Gianforte’s proposed budget would continue to fund some key public land agencies and initiatives, but it falls well short of addressing the critical and well-documented shortfalls facing our public lands – up to $60 million, according to a 2019 Headwaters Economics study. Directing I-190 revenue to public lands initiatives would be a key step, but the governor and legislature must also fight to stop any and all attempts to undermine these programs and jeopardize the access that Montanans have depended on for generations.

They must also pursue new and robust public land funding measures to make the pie bigger and diversify funding sources beyond hunting and fishing licenses. The voter-approved I-190 does just that. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a new and reliable source of revenue for conservation in Montana. Fully funding conservation as the voters intended will ensure a bright future for family farms and ranches, hunters and anglers, and other users of our public lands and waters.

It’s our lawmakers’ duty to serve the people of Montana by honoring and protecting the places that make Montana great, and we encourage them, on behalf of all Montanans, to make our public lands a top priority. Montanans are united in their love and respect for our public lands and outdoor way of life, and our leaders should act accordingly.

Noah Marion is state policy director for Montana Wilderness Association, Whitney Tawney is executive director of Montana Conservation Voters, Liz Albers is executive director of MontPIRG, and John Sullivan is board chair of the Montana chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.