Missouri Headwaters State Park

As the sun sets, it illuminates Missouri Headwaters State Park, where the Gallatin, Madison and Jefferson rivers come together to form the Missouri River. A new report from Bozeman-based Headwaters Economics found that Montana is lagging behind other Western states in spending on conservation, including state parks.

A new report from Bozeman-based Headwaters Economics found that Montana is lagging behind other Western states in spending on conservation.

The research came out of a partnership between Headwaters and the Montana Outdoor Heritage Project, a coalition of conservation, wildlife and outdoor recreation groups. The key takeaway from the report is that the state needs to spend millions of dollars more on public lands, wildlife preservation and outdoor recreation to keep pace with the use of those resources.The full report can be found here.

The report found that Montana’s state parks are operating with almost $26 million in unmet needs, public trail maintenance has $7 million worth of unmet needs, and wildlife habitat preservation efforts need $15 million more each year.

Kelly Pohl, a researcher for Headwaters Economics, said these estimates are conservative. She said there isn’t a clear reason why Montana is spending less.

“I think we’ve been really fortunate to have had investments (in conservation efforts) from state, federal and private agencies for a long time. It’s only been in recent decades that investment has not kept up with growing demand,” Pohl said.

The report says both trail use and state park visits have increased in recent years, and that last year 72% of Montana households used public trails and 53% of households visited a state park. It notes that between 2010 and 2017, state park visits increased by 40%. The report cites research from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the University of Montana.

In terms of spending on state parks, Colorado, Utah and Idaho all have budgets exceeding $500,000 per park. Montana spends roughly $100,000 per park, according to the report.

Headwaters researchers also looked at state spending on private land conservation. The report found that Montana landowners submitted more than $33.6 million in proposals for voluntary conservation easements to preserve their land for a tax benefit, but $21.2 million were approved.

Pohl said these deficits are important to consider because Montana’s economy benefits from the tourism and outdoor recreation profits that public and private lands bring in.

She said it’s time for the state to consider how it can invest more money in these resources.

“We need to be thoughtful and forward-thinking,” Pohl said.

The report lists a number of methods other states have used to pay for conservation costs. Some states have taken out bonds, others have used revenues from a state lottery or sales tax.

Dave Chadwick, executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation, said one of the reasons Montana may be lagging behind is that it has lagged behind in growth. States like Colorado and Arizona have already dealt with population growth, so they had to increase spending years ago.

Chadwick said the Headwaters report confirms what the organization has been hearing from Montanans — that they see a lack of investment in conservation.

Chadwick said he doesn’t favor one solution over another to find more money for conservation. He said if people want something to change, it will.

“I think the real lesson...is that the policy follows the public,” Chadwick said.

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