Preserving Montana’s outdoors heritage is a challenge

Alan Charles
Friday, April 12, 2019
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Iattended a meeting the other day that was billed as an invitation to participate in a “community conversation” about how to preserve Montana’s outdoor heritage. The meeting was hosted by the Montana Outdoor Heritage Project, a group unfamiliar to me, and I attended hoping to learn more.

This group, identifying itself as “a grassroots organization,” is a coalition of people representing outdoor recreation businesses and wildlife/ conservation groups. Their focus is on ensuring adequate funding and resources exist to maintain and improve Montana’s public lands.

The meeting was attended by myself, half a dozen other senior citizens, and two young- to-middle-aged business women. The young lady leading the discussion was enthusiastic, articulate, and eager to hear ideas from the audience.

One person cited limited recreational access to the Tongue River as one of the challenges facing eastern Montana recreationists. Other attendees felt that there was never enough staff or funding available to provide for adequate maintenance and repair of the various public fishing access sites and parks facilities in this area.

We discussed the challenge of ongoing and excessive public abuse of public lands, including vandalism of facilities, the unforgivable dumping of trash at accessible sites, and continual abuse of rules, including violation of travel restrictions on roads and trails.

How to get young people connected to and excited about public lands and outdoor recreational opportunities was another question posed as an ongoing challenge. Part of that problem was attributed to the lure of social media and computer games, but also noted was the sheer lack of available free time for kids, given constraints imposed by school athletics, other extracurricular activities, and homework.

When someone voiced concerns about the trend toward politicizing public lands issues, all attending immediately spoke against such efforts, affirming that public lands belong to all people, and that it was important for all members of the public to work together to ensure that public lands and outdoor recreational opportunities are adequately funded and protected.

While such unified support was gratifying to hear, I would note that we did not quite make it through the meeting before someone accidentally fired off a political shot, reinforcing the partisan reality we all face in today’s world as we work with these issues.

Ideas generated by the group for ways to produce additional funding to support state and federal public land projects and outdoor recreational activities covered the gamut from using a slice of lottery ticket sales, creating dedicated parks fees and/or permit sales, soliciting private and public sector donations, and imposing taxes on various products, (including products related to public land outdoor recreational use as well as other, unrelated products).

“Heritage” implies something that is passed on to subsequent generations. If we consider that our Montana outdoor heritage consists of millions of acres of healthy land and water, inhabited by a multitude of diverse species of wildlife, available for the enjoyment of all Montanans now and into the future, then perhaps we ought to give some serious thought as to how to ensure adequate funding and staff resources exist now and into the future so that this incredible treasure might be passed on.

The Montana Outdoor Heritage Project is just one of many groups chasing ideas. We all, as a community of citizens, need to join in these discussions. We owe it to future generations.

(Outdoors writer Alan Charles lives and writes in the Pine Hills.)