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Valuing Our Western Public Lands Report

Western Public Lands


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A significant portion of the land area of Montana – nearly 30% – is public land. These public lands include national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, monuments, wilderness areas and lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Montana’s public lands feature a diverse range of landscapes, including rounded valleys, jagged peaks, and sparkling glacial lakes as well as huge expanses of sage flats, gumbo badlands, and grassland plains, where the buffalo once roamed in vast. These lands also hold paleontological, archeological, and historical sites aplenty.

Montana’s public lands support a wide variety of activities, from recreational pursuits such as camping, hunting, fishing, and hiking to natural resource development. They also provide clean air, clean water and picturesque scenery, resources enjoyed by all Montanans and visitors who flock to Montana from around the world. Montana’s public lands also provide habitat for hundreds of wildlife species, from popular game species like mule deer and big horn sheep, to the rare pallid sturgeon and whooping crane.

Assessing the Economic Value of Public Lands

Public lands have a substantial impact on the Montana economy. These lands support a booming tourism and outdoor industry. People travel to Montana from around the world to see and explore its natural marvels, such as Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks, and to camp, hunt and fish on thousands of acres of pristine wildlife habitat. In addition, the natural amenities offered by Montana’s public lands attract new businesses and a skilled workforce, which boost economic growth in communities located near public lands.

Montana’s Public Lands Support a Booming Outdoor Recreation and Tourism Industry

Outdoor recreation and tourism are a vital part of the Montana economy. The Montana Office of Tourism reports that tourism is one of Montana’s leading industries and primary revenue drivers. The state hosted 10.8 million visitors in 2012. These visitors spent $3.3 billion and generated $305 million in state and local tax revenue. The Outdoor Industry Association has found that active outdoor recreation produces nearly $2 billion annually in retail sales and services across Montana (accounting for 7.5 percent of gross state product), supports 34,000 jobs across the state, and generates $118 million in annual state tax revenue.

Montana’s Public Lands Provide Opportunities to Hunt, Fish and Watch Wildlife

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that each year 570,000 people participate in wildlife-related recreation in Montana - 267,000 fish, 150,000 hunt and 402,000 participate in wildlife-watching activities. The Montana economy benefits from $1.4 billion in annual spending on wildlife-related recreation.

Montana’s Public Lands Influence the Economic Structure of Nearby Communities

Like other western states with a large percentage of public lands, Montana is outpacing the nation in economic growth.  The competitive advantage offered by its public lands attracts talent, investment, and businesses to Montana, contributing to its high rate of employment and income growth.

Montana vs. Non-Western U.S., Percent Change, 2000-2011. Source: Headwaters Economics. West Is Best: Protected Lands Promote Montana Jobs and Higher Incomes. November 2012. http://headwaterseconomics.org/land/west-is-best-value-of-public-lands-mt/


Montanans Value Public Lands

Public opinion polls prove that people and businesses come to Montana and choose to stay because of the quality of life tied to public lands. Montana residents enjoy spending time outside on public lands. A 2013 bipartisan poll conducted by the Colorado College State of the Rockies Project showed that a majority of Montana voters (57%) hike regularly, and 60% are regular campers. Seventy-one percent (71%) of voters in the state plan to visit a national park this year. These Montanans recognize the economic and intrinsic value of public lands and want to see these lands protected for future generations.

Montana Voters Recognize That Public Lands Support the Economy

Montana voters clearly value the impact public lands have on their economy – an overwhelming majority (91%) say they are an essential part of the state’s economy and 70% agree that the state's public lands help attract high quality employers and good jobs. Seventy-two percent (72%) of Montana voters believe public lands in the state support the economy, provide recreation opportunities and enhance quality of life, rather than being a fiscal burden and preventing creation of jobs in traditional industries.

Montana Voters Support Protections for Land, Water, Air and Wildlife

A solid majority (57%) of Montana want environmentally sensitive public lands to be “permanently protected” from oil and gas production.

Montana Voters Oppose Proposals to Sell Off Public Lands

Voters are strongly opposed to selling off public lands as a way to reduce the deficit, with just 27% supporting selling off the land, compared to 66% who oppose it. Intensity is especially strong, as more than half (52%) of Montana voters are strongly opposed to selling off public land.

Elected Officials Are Out of Touch

Far too many of Montana’s public lands are under attack by Congress and the state legislature. For example, throughout the 112th and 113th Congresses, elected lawmakers introduced dozens of bills that sought to roll back protections for public lands. If the sponsors of these proposals succeed in their aims, these lands will be used in whatever way the new owner – state or private – wants to use them. This generally means maximizing private profits through resource extraction rather than managing for the long-term benefit and use of the public. To learn more about why these proposals are problematic, read the full report, Valuing Our Western Public Lands: Safeguarding Our Economy and Way of Life.

Attempts to Transfer Public Land Out of Public Ownership

Several bills proposed in the U.S. Congress would force the sale of public lands in Montana:

  • American Land Act (H.R. 1017, 113th Congress), by Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX). This bill would force the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service to sell 8 percent of their respective federal land to the highest bidder, annually until 2017. This year alone, the two agencies would be forced to sell off nearly 36 million acres of forest and public land to corporate interests.
  • Action Plan for Public Lands and Education Acta.k.a. “Land Division Act” (H.R. 2852, 112th Congress), by Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT). This bill would force the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service to give away, free of charge, 5 percent of their lands to each Western state. This would leave 30 million acres in the West vulnerable to more resource extraction and development.
  • Disposal of Federal Lands Act (H.R. 1126, 112th Congress), by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT). This bill would force the Bureau of Land Management in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming to sell off “excess” public lands to the highest bidder. This bill was also incorporated into the House budget bill in the 113th Congress.

Attempts to Weaken Protection of Public Lands

For decades, cornerstone conservation laws like the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) have protected public lands and natural resources. Recently, many members of Congress have been working to dismantle these vital protections and open public lands to increased resource exploitation and development. For example, in the first session of the 112th Congress, House Republicans voted 191 times to weaken environmental protections, halt wilderness designations, and remove protections for wildlife. For a list of some of the legislation that poses significant risks to our public lands, read the full report, Valuing Our Western Public Lands: Safeguarding Our Economy and Way of Life.

Why the Disconnect?

Why is there an ideological gap between the actions of our elected officials and the values of their constituents? Clearly the power and influence of industry lobbying and campaign contributions plays a role. But the Colorado College State of the Rockies poll offers an additional explanation: the majority of voters in western states are not aware of their representatives’ view on public lands issues. Indeed, survey data indicates that while most Montana voters take a positive view of a candidate who supports protecting public lands and espouses pro-conservation positions, many (45%) say they are not sure what position their member of Congress has taken on protecting land, air and water.

Get Involved

It’s up to individual citizens to hold elected officials and decision makers accountable to the values that define Montana’s public lands heritage. The most important thing you can do is let decision makers know that you are paying attention. To have your voice heard and demonstrate your commitment to preserving our public lands:

1.      Inspire your children and grandchildren to become the next generation of conservation leaders by taking them outside to hike, fish, hunt, and watch wildlife. Visit OPL’s Montana Resources page for information about visiting Montana’s public lands.

2.      Join local, regional, and national groups like the National Wildlife Federation that fight for your priorities. Visit OPL’s Montana Resources page for a list of wildlife and conservation groups that work in Montana.

3.      Take advantage of opportunities for citizen involvement in decisions affecting our public lands: public meetings and hearings with decision makers, public comments periods, town hall meetings, and other forms of citizen engagement.

4.      Reach out directly to your elected officials through letters, phone calls, or social media platforms. Tell them you value our public lands. Your representatives are duty-bound to listen. Visit the links below to find and contact your elected officials.

Contact Elected Officials About Public Lands Issues

Click here for Resources about Montana's Public Land and Wildlife


Center for American Progress, Goad, J. and Kenworthy, T., State Efforts to ‘Reclaim’ Our Public Lands http://www.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/GoadLandsReclaimBrief-1.pdf

Colorado College State of the Rockies Project, Conservation in the West Poll http://www.coloradocollege.edu/other/stateoftherockies/conservationinthewest/

Headwaters Economics, West Is Best: Protected Lands Promote Montana Jobs and Higher Incomes http://headwaterseconomics.org/land/west-is-best-value-of-public-lands-mt/

Headwaters Economics, Montana’s Economy and the Role of Federal Protected Lands http://headwaterseconomics.org/wphw/wp-content/uploads/Montana_WestisBest.pdf

Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Recreation and Tourism http://fwp.mt.gov/doingBusiness/reference/montanaChallenge/reports/tourism.html

Montana Office of Tourism http://travelmontana.mt.gov/

Outdoor Industry Association, The Outdoor Recreation Economy – Montana http://www.outdoorindustry.org/images/ore_reports/MT-montana-outdoorrecreationeconomy-oia.pdf

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, Montana http://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/fhw11-az.pdf

U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Energy and Commerce Minority Staff, The Anti-Environment Record of the U.S. House of Representatives 112th Congress, 1stSession http://democrats.energycommerce.house.gov/sites/default/files/image_uploads/_Anti-Environment%20Report%20Final.pdf