Montana’s $7 billion economic juggernaut deemed “nonessential” by Speaker Austin Knudsen

Montanans expect our government to be smart and fair with taxpayer dollars. We believe that our politicians should be accountable to the folks who write their paychecks — us.

Rep. Austin Knudsen

A few weeks ago, Montana Speaker of the House Austin Knudsen wrote an editorial that swept across the state. It was featured on local new sites as far away as My Central Jersey, which covers Middlesex and Somerset counties in the great Garden State.

In his editorial, Knudsen addressed the state’s revenue problem. He wrote that Montanans want to see our state government “prioritize spending, cut back on nonessential government operations and make do with less taxpayer money-until revenues increase.”

Knudsen took a hit at one particular expenditure: the newly formed Office of Outdoor Recreation. This was the one “nonessential government operation” that, in his words, should “infuriate every tax paying Montanan.”

Actually it’s not the Office of Outdoor Recreation that should infuriate us, but rather Knudsen’s lack of understanding of Montana’s economy and of our outdoor way of life.

First of all, this is a relatively small investment to put towards a very lucrative industry. The budget sets aside $200,000 towards developing this new office. The money comes from the Big Sky Economic Development Trust Fund which promotes long-term, stable economic growth and job creation.

Stable economic growth and job creation sound like pretty worthy investments. Surely Knudsen isn’t opposed to jobs? But he is out of touch with the direction of Montana’s economy.

Outdoor recreation is not some small part of our state’s economy. In fact, it directly and indirectly generates a lot of money and jobs for communities across Montana. Here are just a few stats:

    • Outdoor recreation generates $7.1 billion in annual consumer spending
    • There are 71,000 jobs directly related to the recreation industry
    • Those jobs generate $2.2 billion in wages and salaries
    • The industry generates $286 million in local and state tax revenues
    • 81 percent of Montanans participate in outdoor recreation every year
    • Small businesses come to Montana because of our outdoor way of life

A $200,000 investment in a $7.1 billion industry! You don’t have to be a stockbroker to know that this is a smart investment that could help fix the revenue problem that Knudsen is so worried about.

Our state government has all sorts of offices and agencies that assist its key industries. We have departments to support labor, natural resources, livestock and agricultural industries. But what we didn’t have was an office to provide unified assistance for this growing $7.1 billion industry.

Knudsen’s criticism does not support the countless businesses and communities who would benefit from this office. From Phillipsburg to Miles City, Montanans are capitalizing on their public lands and outdoor opportunities. Lewistown’s economy is strengthened by its public access and prime hunting. Fort Benton has gained traction with its trails systems and proximity to the Missouri Breaks. Lincoln is a world-class destination for hunting, fishing, hiking and snowmobiling, and for good measure offers the Blackfoot Pathways sculpture park. (If you haven’t checked out this “Sculpture in the Wild,” you won’t regret making a brief stop next time you’re in the area.)

Artist Jaakko Pernu from Finland created “Picture Frame” from Spruce and Pine. It’s one of the many sculptures in Lincoln’s Blackfoot Pathways.

This new office would only help to strengthen those efforts. After all, that’s why the Office of Outdoor Recreation is part of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, whose main mission is to help businesses succeed in our state.

That public lands are major recruiting tools for tech companies and other high-end employers across Montana is no secret. That our public lands are a large and critical part of our outdoor economy is not disputed by anyone in the state, except maybe for some folks who haven’t figured out you can do more with a dinosaur than put it in your gas tank. Our view is that the Office of Outdoor Recreation will be ideally suited to not only help our outdoor industry continue to grow on a sustainable, thoughtful path, but that they will be able to help ensure all other businesses have the tools they need to attract highly skilled, well-paid professionals to help ensure a better, more diversified economy for Montana.

Knudsen’s comments about this office show that he is out of touch with Montanans. We make a living and we make a life from our public lands and open spaces. We’d like to see outdoor recreation work for even more Montanans, and we’d appreciate it if the Speaker understood that, rather than only see Montana’s economy as something that can’t change from the past 100 years.

-Amanda Garant

Got something to say to Prairie Populist? Send news tips, story ideas and comments to [email protected]If you have something to submit, or an idea for a story you’d like to write for us, check out our Submission Guidelines here.