By Amanda Eggert EBS Staff Writer

BIG SKY – As the keynote speaker at the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce’s annual dinner, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock championed the intrinsic and economic benefits of open land and promoted initiatives to strengthen its access.

Approximately 220 people—just over half of the chamber’s largest membership to date—attended the dinner at Big Sky Resort’s Huntley Lodge, an event billed as “the most important meal in town.”

David O’Connor, chair of the chamber’s board of directors, spoke about the organization’s efforts on affordable housing and transportation before presenting this year’s annual awards (see news briefs on page __) and introducing Bullock.

Bullock opened the keynote address with a quip about his absence. “I haven’t been here since I ripped Meg O’Leary out of your community,” Bullock said. “It’s nice to be back.”

O’Leary joined the governor’s staff as the Montana Department of Commerce director in 2013; prior to that she was Big Sky Resort’s director of sales and marketing.

After reminiscing about his first and subsequent visits to Big Sky, Bullock dove into the topic of the night: open space.

Bullock said Montana’s public lands “make our state like no other place on earth.” They provide a clean, healthy environment, economic growth, recreation opportunities, solace and inspiration, he said.

“They’re the things that we want to hopefully pass on to the next generation, and the generation afterward,” Bullock said, adding that his kids’ recent excitement for fly fishing is a welcome development. “Seeing them fall in love time and time again with the same things you share with your families … it’s inspiring.”

The governor also had several statistics at the ready to demonstrate the state’s strong economic footing. He touted Montana’s 4.2 percent unemployment rate, which is approximately one point below the national average, and the size of Montana’s workforce, the largest in the state’s history.

Bullock also mentioned a just-released study from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, which named Montana the fifth fastest-growing economy in the nation.

After hitting upon some promising trends in education, like the highest high school graduation rate in the state’s history, Bullock turned his attention to the role outdoor recreation and public land play in the state’s economy.

Referencing a study from the Outdoor Industry Association, Bullock said the outdoor recreation industry in Montana is directly responsible for 64,000 jobs. “This has a $6 billion—with a B—impact on consumer spending each and every year,” Bullock said. “We have almost 12 million visitors each and every year [and] they ain’t coming for our Walmarts.”

Although he said Montana has “incredible access laws,” Bullock is working to address a number of issues with his recently unveiled public lands and access initiative.

As part of this four-part plan, Bullock is creating an Office of Outdoor Recreation; hiring a public access specialist to open “locked gates where locked gates don’t belong”; pledging support for the Habitat Montana program, which uses fishing and licensing fees for conservation efforts; and soliciting information on access issues and potential solutions via the email address.

In a post-speech interview, Bullock answered questions about the sale and transfer of public lands, the challenge of striking a balance between access for all and resource protection, and the most expensive governor’s race in the state’s history.

Although Montana has some of the most robust public access in the nation owing to statues like the Montana Stream Access Law, it also has more “landlocked” acres of public land than any other Western state, according to a 2013 report by the Center for Western Priorities.

Bullock said the public access specialist he hires will be tasked with opening access to a portion of those 2 million acres.

Possible solutions include working with groups like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to open pathways to currently inaccessible land managed by the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and other state and federal agencies.

Some believe Montana stands to benefit from transferring federal land under the jurisdiction of agencies like the Forest Service to the state, but Bullock disagrees. “I think the transfer of the federal lands movement is more about selling them off than preserving them for generations to come,” he said.

“While I’ll always work at times with the federal government and fight against them to make sure they’re managing their lands as well as we do ours, the answer isn’t, from my perspective, to take the lands back,” Bullock said. “Ultimately, [after] one fire season, we’d be selling off these lands. The state wouldn’t be able to afford them.”

Access to public land has become a hot topic in Bullock’s bid against Republican nominee Greg Gianforte, which is on track to be the most expensive gubernatorial race in the state’s history.

“I’m not pleased with the fact that this will be the most expensive governor’s race in our state’s history,” Bullock said of the $3.8 million he and his opponent have spent on the race through the June 7 primary. “I’m also not pleased [that] my opponent’s been putting in about $100,000 a week of his own money into this.

“At the end of the day, though, from my perspective, what’s important is people realize that their vote really is their voice in the system and people get engaged in the overall process.”

In regard to heavy visitation in places like Yellowstone National Park, where a number of safety and resource degradation issues have recently garnered national attention, Bullock said possible solutions include exploring ways for people to get around the park more effectively and spreading out tourism and its impact.

“Ideally there are some things that we could do to help folks understand all the great things between [Yellowstone and Glacier national parks],” Bullock said. “It’s a good problem to have.”

A future governor could eliminate the newly created Office of Outdoor Recreation, but Bullock said he hopes such measures transcend politics. “It’s a reflection of Montana values, and it’s not Democrat or Republican.”