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HB 462 pits Montana’s outdoors against mental health in a false narrative

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A hiker looks over the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park. PHOTO BY JACOB W. FRANK

By Benjamin Alva Polley EBS COLUMNIST

What comes to mind when you think of Montana?

A vast sky where sun and clouds eternally play the game of hide and seek, with shadows dancing across undulating prairies interspersed with the open space of working ranches? Or ribbed, muscular mountains rising toward heaven, flanked with bottle-green trees, u-shaped valleys carved by glaciers with rivers running clear?

Maybe a place teeming with biodiversity and wildlife still freely roaming, and hard-working people fighting to keep all the above characteristics?

A new bill in the Montana Legislature seeks to divert funds away from one of Montana’s most important conservation funds. House Bill 462, sponsored by Rep. Marta Bertaglio (R-Clancy) at the request of the Gianforte administration, is the latest effort to subvert funds from our public lands.

In 2020, Montanans voted to legalize recreational marijuana along with a 20% tax on sales, which went toward Habitat Montana, veteran’s services, substance abuse treatment, health care, and local governments. Under Habitat Montana specifically, these funds are allocated to state parks and trails, conservation easements, land trusts with public access, and wildlife conservation. But, although the state has an enormous budget surplus right now, HB 462 would strip money from Habitat Montana and allocate it to mental health and increase law enforcement instead.

Habitat Montana is a win-win situation for working ranches and sportsmen and women. It allows landowners to enroll in conservation easements but also allows public access through parcels of their land. The landowner wins because they receive a significant check that ensures the property stays within the family by preventing them from having to subdivide it or develop it in the future.

“Habitat Montana is the best tool we have for keeping Montana, Montana,” says Kevin Farron, the regional policy manager of Montana’s Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. “We’re disappointed in the governor’s budget, and we’re disappointed in the legislature’s attempt to defund the program. It’s ridiculous we’re arguing over who gets the money when we’re looking at a record surplus. We’re putting well-deserving programs against one another when we have the budget to do both.”

Bertaglio counters by claiming that “we are suffering from an out-of-control drug problem.”

It’s true, some people in Montana suffer from drug addiction. But to say it’s out of control is hyperbole; the statistics for the highest drug use rank not even in the top five or the top 10 in the nation but No. 16. That’s not to say mental health should be cut short of funding, nor should our great American outdoor heritage. Especially given that public land access is an increasingly acknowledged tool in improving mental health.

More and more studies show that time spent in nature calms nerves, relieves stress, helps people suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, boosts immune systems, helps clarity of thought, reduces the risk of psychiatric disorders, and causes upticks in empathy and cooperation. In Montana, 44,000 adults have a severe mental illness, and this is probably only half of the reported cases. Montana ranks third in the nation with one of the highest suicide rates.

“Nature has been proven to benefit our physical and mental health in various ways,” says Aaron Adamski, a licensed professional counselor. “There are plenty of public lands to access in Montana, and my life’s goal is to help others access and use this land to help them heal from mental health disorders, trauma, and stressors.” 

Montana is Montana because of our outdoor heritage and public lands.

“Montana has remained the Last Best Place because of our shared outdoor values. Attacking our public lands by permanently defunding them undercuts every Montanan who values our public lands,” says Whitney Tawney, executive director of Montana Conservation Voters. “As Montana continues to grow by leaps and bounds, we should invest in what makes Montana the place to raise kids and get outside. We wholeheartedly reject any attempts that put our outdoor way of life at risk, and we know Montanans do too.”

Montanans already need help finding access to our public lands because private lands surround some public lands. Much of the public lands have hunting crowding, not to mention the elephant in the room for working ranchlands: rising property tax rates, a real estate boom, and inflation.

We want to keep working ranches on the landscape, ensuring open space and viewscapes by fending off development. The land is the stage where our human stories play out, whether we’re anglers, conservationists, hunters, ranchers, recreationists, veterans, or common everyday Montanans. We all need the place and space that heals us.

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