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A recent University of Montana poll reveals that 89% of Montanans agree our public lands are helpful to the state’s economy. The biannual survey identifies Montanans’ opinions about outdoor recreation, conservation and public lands issues. Conducted by a bipartisan group of pollsters, the results showed that nearly everyone polled — 98% — agreed that outdoor recreation businesses are important to Montana’s economy. This speaks volumes to the way Montanans view our outdoors and public lands, and how they factor into our economic recovery from COVID-19.

I understand firsthand how our outdoor recreation industry fits into our economy. My work revolves around representing the voices of manufacturers, retailers, outfitters and companies whose cultures are built around our outdoor way of life. They all understand how the value of our outdoors serves their business. I believe that to weather this storm, we must be exceptionally sensitive to the current climate, and continue to elevate the important role our public lands play in the outdoor recreation economy and the jobs attached.

It’s the Montana way to identify our inherent strengths while navigating uncharted waters. As Montanans, we recognize that we have a role in stopping the spread of COVID-19. We also realize that part of our advantage is the ability to access of every bit of our nearly 34 million acres of public lands, trails, hills, mountains and parks, as well as rivers and lakes around us. You could say we were social distancing long before it was necessary.

The recent poll made one thing clear: Montanans love their outdoor lifestyle, visiting public lands, and engaging in a variety of outdoor recreation opportunities. We believe outdoor recreation businesses and jobs are critical to our economy, and we want Congress’ attention on publicly processed proposals that invest in our public lands.

Programs like the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) that invest in Montana communities are key. This conservation program has invested $618 million in Montana. It has invested in communities and surrounding public lands that turn out more than 16,550 jobs resulting from visitor expenditures on those lands. From Bozeman to Miles City to Seeley Lake and everywhere in between, every dollar invested through LWCF has generated $4 in economic activity. It stimulates our economy.

A majority of those polled also support a variety of policies that aim to protect our public lands. Seventy-five percent support the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act, which would ensure access, increase protections and improve recreation opportunities in the Bob Marshall, Scapegoat and Mission Mountains wilderness areas. Companies across Montana hold all of these things dear: access, recreation and the protections that keep these places in tact.

As we all work on facing the unprecedented economic impacts of COVID-19, it is important for Congress to find ways to support and pass solid legislation like the Great American Outdoors Act, which would stimulate our economy by providing full and dedicated funding for LWCF while also addressing the mounting backlog of maintenance needed in our national parks. It is the economic stimulus package that focuses on our outdoor infrastructure.

Our outdoor way of life is the lifeline to navigating this era of social distancing. Our outdoor infrastructure needs support now more than ever to bring our economy and our jobs back to life. We can’t forget what it takes to sustain our public lands and the landscapes that we love in Montana. With the support of 98% of Montanans who agree that our outdoor recreation businesses are important to our state’s economy, our leaders in Congress can get these programs across the finish line. Our outdoor economy is responsible for $7.1 billion in consumer spending in Montana and prior to coronavirus, supported more than 71,000 jobs.

These numbers make it easy to prioritize our public lands as a critical piece of what it will take to stimulate Montana’s economy as we move forward to recovering.

Marne Hayes represents Business for Montana’s Outdoors.

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