Land and sky

A wild rose bush grows on a plot of windswept land near Belgrade.

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Montanans care a lot about public land access and conserving wildlife and they like the idea of the state spending more money on those things, according to survey results released this week by the Montana Outdoor Heritage Project.

The survey, based on responses from more than 11,000 people, found that 83% of respondents think Montana should set aside more money to protect wildlife, agricultural lands and outdoor recreation opportunities — even if it means taxes increase. Participants also said they wanted to see greater contributions from out-of-state visitors and outdoorsy-types who don’t buy hunting and fishing licenses.

But during a teleconference with reporters on Thursday, representatives of the Montana Outdoor Heritage Project said they don’t yet know how the state should meet the demand for more conservation money.

“Our goal was really to start that broader conversation of how we protect this heritage and this legacy,” said Christine Whitlatch, a Billings-based volunteer for the project.

Conservation groups, ranchers and others joined forces earlier this year for the Montana Outdoor Heritage Project, which advocates for greater investment in ”Montana’s outdoor way of life.” The campaign’s website said the state’s heritage of outdoor recreation is threatened by population growth, growing visitation to parks and campgrounds and poor funding for wildlife conservation.

In 50 meetings across the state this summer and through the survey, they asked people what they thought about the state’s outdoor heritage, what challenges they see and what they want to done about it.

Most of the respondents saw loss of access to public lands and climate change as a significant challenges.

As for protecting the outdoors, the ideas they had were broad — create new partnerships, find new funding sources, empower locals or provide more education. About 71% of respondents supported increased funding to address their priorities.

“The big takeaway is that Montanans are ready to invest more of our state’s resources on protecting wildlife, improving public access, conserving working lands,” said Dave Chadwick, executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation.

Chadwick said there are some ways the state could already increase financial support for those priorities, such as the Habitat Montana fund, which has paid for state land acquisitions over the years, and a newly created trails fund. One option that doesn’t exist is a way for non-consumptive outdoor recreationists — people not hunting or fishing — to help pay for conservation. Most of the funding for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, for example, comes from hunting and fishing licenses and excise taxes on fishing tackle and guns and ammunition.

Cole Mannix, a rancher from the Blackfoot Valley and associate director of Western Landowners Alliance, said the survey also showed that people recognize the importance of Montana’s ranches in preserving the things people like about the state.

“It’s the same landscape that sustains our food and fiber needs and also our needs to get out and enjoy the landscape,” Mannix said. “It’s that same landscape that quite literally is the common ground for us.”

Mannix wants to see more state money for local collaborative groups that bring ranchers and conservationists together to work on issues on a watershed by watershed basis, such as the Ovando-based Blackfoot Challenge or the Sheridan-based Ruby Valley Strategic Alliance.

Those groups can make a big difference in areas like water use or predator-livestock conflicts, he said, but it requires paying someone to run the groups.

“That costs money,” Mannix said. “There’s currently a limited amount of money for that now.”

Whitlatch said the next step for the group is to bring what they learned to state policy makers and start looking for solutions.

“We are really looking to see how we can move forward and have a statewide discussion on funding and state policy,” she said.

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