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Recreationists cautioned to balance use with conservation

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'Bison and Electric Peak at the North Entrance of Yellowstone.' NPS PHOTO

By Bella Butler EBS EDITORIAL ASSISTANT

BIG SKY – In many ways, Montana may be considered the flagship for wild places in the United States. With just over a million people spread out across nearly 150,000 square miles, there is a bountiful offering of wide-open spaces with exceptional access to entertain sportsmen and women of all kinds.

In Gov. Steve Bullock’s second campaign, he made it a priority to protect the land privileges enjoyed by recreationists in Montana, running largely on a public lands platform. When in office, he followed through on the promise and established the Montana Office of Outdoor Recreation, making Montana the fourth state to establish such an office.

Based in the Montana Governor’s Office for Economic Development, MTOOR is a one-employee operation run by director Rachel VandeVoort, a native Montanan who grew up in Whitefish and graduated from the University of Montana.

Each state’s office of outdoor recreation hones their focus on priorities and missions that satisfy their state’s unique needs. For Montana, that looks like fostering continued growth for outdoor recreation, which VandeVoort says is an essential and critical segment of not only the Montana lifestyle, with over 80 percent of Montanans participating in outdoor recreation, but also its economy.

“[The] outdoor recreation economy is a significant contributor [to Montana’s economy overall],” VandeVoort said. Citing figures from the 2018 MTOOR Economy Report, she noted that 10 percent of all Montana jobs are directly related to outdoor recreation. The report also concluded that the outdoor recreation industry accrues $7.1 billion dollars in consumer spending and generates $286 million in state and local taxes.

Looking through an economic lens, growing the industry can only mean a stronger state economy, which in turn translates to higher standards of living for Montanans and more opportunities for prosperity within the state.

However, increased recreation in fragile natural climates may seem like a “Catch 22.” As the economy trends upward with the growth of the industry, the health of Montana’s environment could potentially see a reversed outcome. As VandeVoort pointed out, there is no such thing as a type of recreation that has no impact.

As the outdoor recreation industry expands and consequently so do the repercussions to the environment, a divide has surfaced between conservationists—those looking to preserve the land—and recreationists who prioritize heavy use.

In an essay published by “High Country News,” Ethan Linck writes the narrative of this rift, claiming that blurring the lines between recreationist and conservationist is misguided. He poses this question: “Can outdoor recreation really support conservation for the long-term health of the land, not just human access?”

Linck’s argument is that the conservation that recreationists believe they are participating in is actually born out of self-interest; people will fight to protect something if they have a vested stake in it. To Linck, this is what distinguishes a recreationist from a conservationist, the latter being someone who he believes views the environment with the absence of anthropocentric perspective and honors the intrinsic value in nature.

Randy Carpenter, project manager for the nonprofit organization Future West, hopes attitudes will shift toward thinking about what is best for nature.

“As our population grows … as we see more and more impacts, I hope that people will start to look at the intrinsic value of our wild lands and see that value alone as meaningful,” he said.

VandeVoort does agree that participating in outdoor activities does not inherently make you a conservationist of that place solely based on that interaction with nature. Despite recognizing the partition between the two acts, she also suggests that in our current world, conservation and recreation cannot exist exclusively from each other.

“[Conservation] takes time and energy and effort and money to maintain,” VandeVoort said.

According to the MTOOR director, the outdoor recreation industry has the resources to support conservation efforts in a way that otherwise wouldn’t be possible; a portion of MTOOR is improving outdoor recreation infrastructure and access with a focus on stewardship and conservation. She also believes that allowing people the opportunity to experience the outdoors instills in them a passion for those outside spaces and a desire to protect them. This concept is often known as “place attachment” and has been debated as a sound theory by many.

With outdoor recreation playing such a large role in Montana’s culture and livelihood, it will not likely dissolve from the region anytime soon. However, in order to meet environmental needs spurring from rapidly increasing use by recreationists, the Montana outdoor recreation industry and those that it serves may need to “practice restraint,” as said by Carpenter.

The question remains as to what these restraints look like and how large of a push they must be. Carpenter pointed out that there are a great deal of impacts by recreationists that have yet to come to light, so determining solutions is an especially challenging feat.

An example VandeVoort offered up is the Smith River permit system, which limits the number of floaters allowed on the prized Smith River in the central part of the state.

The solution to growing the outdoor recreation industry responsibly is thus far inconclusive, but VandeVoort and Carpenter both believe it must include a balance of respecting conservation efforts and honoring the role that outdoor recreation plays in Montana.

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