By Bella Butler EBS STAFF
BIG SKY – The recent Great American Outdoors Act made national headlines after passing through the U.S. Senate with extensive bipartisan support and according to local organizations, the act’s high-dollar benefits will trickle down to Big Sky’s conservation and outdoor recreation landscapes.
The bill, which garnered outspoken support from members of both sides of the political spectrum, passed with a 73-25 vote and will allocate billions of federal dollars to public land agencies like the National Park Service. According to Outside, these agencies report $20 billion worth of financially blocked maintenance on public lands nationwide, and money from the act will support the upkeep and improvements that have been especially neglected.
The second part of the bill mandates complete funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million annually. Established by an act of Congress in 1964, this fund has helped support the conservation of thousands of acres across the U.S. Local organizations such as the Big Sky Community Organization have benefited from the LWCF and will continue to follow the ratification of the new act.
The LWCF, which provides funding for open lands bonds and projects throughout Gallatin County and the state of Montana, aided in BSCO’s purchase of the Big Sky Community Park,
said BSCO Director of Parks and Trails Adam Johnson, who added that the organization will continue to use the LWCF to support parks and trails maintenance and upkeep. Johnson clarified that while the concept of the bill may invoke images of pristine wild places, it will also support local parks and trails, a large part of what the BSCO does in Big Sky.
The Gallatin River Task Force, a Big Sky-based water conservation organization, also looks forward to drawing gains from the new legislation. With a primary focus on water quality and watershed health in the upper Gallatin watershed, GRTF partners with local, state and federal public land agencies like the U.S. Forest Service, which will be supported through the act.
The LWCF was created to jointly support conservation and recreation interests, something the Great American Outdoors Act similarly aims to achieve. Locally, BSCO and GRTF demonstrate how conservation and outdoor recreation are intrinsically tied together. David Tucker, GRTF’s communication director, provided the following example.
The ever popular Ousel Falls Trail, which is managed by BSCO, leads hikers and bikers on a path that dances around the South Fork of the Gallatin River. BSCO reported 53,528 trail users on Ousel Falls Trail in 2019, a substantial amount of traffic stomping along the banks of the stream.
“While it’s not directly in the river, it has an impact on water quality,” Tucker said. The two organizations often collaborate on community efforts like the annual dog waste clean-up and educational efforts like interpretive signage along trails.
Climbing trail and river use trends only make their work more critical, and the Great American Outdoors Act is an opportunity to ramp up the funding support needed to meet a rising demand for conservation and recreation services. Since 2010, statistics show that the population of Gallatin County has continued to grow exponentially, equating to more people using parks, trails and river access.
Recently, this trend has been exacerbated by conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic. During April and May, one of Big Sky’s two shoulder seasons, a BSCO report revealed trail counts higher than past years, a shift Johnson attributes to seasonal workers not being able to travel elsewhere and the ease of social distancing in the outdoors.
Tucker reported similar trends for river use, with boaters and anglers flocking to the water leading up to the mellower runoff season. “It’s always been a place of solace for people, and that trend has only increased,” he said.
The increased traffic, however, stands to threaten the treasured waters that people are escaping to.
“We’re seeing way more and more people go to the river… with that comes some negative impacts to the river and that’s where conservation comes in; where we can practice kind of restraint and we can educate people on their unintentional consequences that their recreation is maybe having…” Tucker said.
Other communities are experiencing heightened interest in the outdoors, as well. “I think that right now we’re really seeing that people value this,” Tucker said. “And we might’ve known it for a while here in southwest Montana but a lot of other people across the country…they’re getting to see the value of these natural resources in a different way.”
Headlines from coast to coast read how “quarantine fatigue” and the security of open air are inspiring rising outdoor recreation, and organizations across the nation are vying for extra funding to support the expanding needs.
“I think one of the highlights of what’s going on with all of our trail is we all recognize it’s a very important thing to have trails and outdoor spaces right now,” Johnson said. “The last go around with the Recreational Trails Program saw I think the largest application pool that they have seen in the state of Montana…” Johnson said that extra funding for the LWCF, which historically has only been funded at a small fraction of its new $900 million budget, will help fund increased trail work, locally and beyond.
“…[W]hile the bill is a great step toward…chipping away at that maintenance backlog, there’s a lot of things that we can all do as recreators on public land, private land trails, whatever it is, to make sure that we’re leaving the least amount of impact that we can,” Tucker said, suggesting actions like avoiding muddy trails, abstaining from littering at fishing access sites and limiting plastic use can make a significant difference.
“There’s a lot of accountability that can start with individual recreators,” he said.