Perhaps some of the biggest news that didn’t actually make the headlines last week came from a new economic report, released by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, stating that Montana is leading the United States in GDP% coming from outdoor activities.

The report shows the outdoor recreation economy accounts for $427.2 billion of our national gross domestic product (GDP). This amounts to a 3.9 percent growth – far faster than the 2.4 percent growth of the overall U.S. economy. Further, in real gross output, compensation and employment grew faster in the outdoor recreation economy than the national economy as a whole.

In other words, our outdoor recreation economy is thriving, growing and amounts to big business across the country, and here at home in Montana.

What’s especially notable from the report is the fact that Montana ranked at the top, nationally, for the size of our state’s outdoor recreation economy as a percentage of GDP.

In fact, Montana was second only to Hawaii, with 5.1 percent of our GDP linked to our state’s growing outdoor recreation economy.

For the first time, the research also broke down the value-added economic contributions of specific activities. Nationally, boating and fishing topped the list of core activities that fuel our outdoor recreation economy. At $20.9 billion per year, boating and fishing are collectively a significant economic driver.

We know this all too well here in Montana. A recent report from Headwaters Economics, “A Healthy Outdoors Fuels Montana’s Economy,” showed that in 2017, anglers spent nearly $920 million in more than 3.3 million angling days across the state. It also showed that more than 700,000 people took guided trips in Montana in 2017, generating 16,000 local jobs. This is reinforced by the national report from BEA that shows guided tours and outfitted travel account for $12.9 billion and was one of the fastest growing activities in 2017.

These new numbers aren’t from some obscure think tank. They come from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, the official non-partisan economic research arm of the federal government.

And do you know where a significant amount of these activities cited are taking place? On our public lands – on Montana’s roughly 34 million acres of public lands, to be exact. Gone are the days when our policymakers can deny the crucial role our public lands play in supporting jobs, bolstering our businesses and fueling one of the fastest growing sectors of our national economy. Ninety-six percent of Montanans believe the outdoor recreation economy is important to the economic future of the state, and 95% say that outdoor recreation is important to their quality of life.

All of these facts and new economic research point to a clear conclusion: Our public lands are an economic asset – one that contributes significantly to our state’s economy, our communities, and the jobs and businesses that are started and built here. Federal policies such as the Land and Water Conservation Fund, that improve access to our public lands and that commit financial investments in our public lands, recreation assets and waterways should appropriately be viewed as jobs bills. In Montana alone, LWCF is responsible for more than 75% of our state’s fishing access sites.

LWCF is the perfect example of a program that actively invests in the $7.1 billion outdoor recreation economy and that industry’s 71,000 supported jobs – without using a dime of taxpayer money.

Perhaps the litmus test on the performance of our congressional delegation should be how they vote on key public lands bills that hold promise for our outdoors. How willing are our leaders to work for the jobs and growing economy supported by our outdoor industry? Do they support fully funding LWCF? Are they willing to do the hard political work of helping a dysfunctional Congress pass legislation that supports jobs, such as fully funding LWCF? With numbers like these, and Montana coming out strong as a leader, it seems a difficult asset to ignore.

Marne Hayes lives and works in Big Sky, and is the executive director of business for Montana’s Outdoors.