Parks and trails bill is only the first step

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On May 7, motorized and non-motorized public land users, conservation and hunting and fishing groups, business associations, and civic organizations joined together in celebration: Governor Bullock had just signed SB24, a bill that will provide critical funding for underfunded state parks, trails, and fishing access sites, into law.

It was a big win for everyone who uses, loves, and depends on Montana’s public lands, and the diverse group that united to celebrate the passage of SB24 represented a core Montana truth: in our state, our public lands and our outdoor way of life are not partisan issues.

The work that was done to pass SB24 is proof. The signing was the culmination of a process that began many months ago when Montana Trails Coalition published a report titled Montana Trails in Crisis. The report, a collaborative effort including conservation interests and motorized and non-motorized user groups, detailed the harsh financial realities facing our state parks and trails in the face of skyrocketing use, and proposed made-in-Montana solutions to this funding crisis.

The critical importance of sustainably-funded parks, trails, and fishing sites was well-understood by Montana’s legislative delegation, and we’d like to thank them for their vision and commitment to passing SB24, beginning with the bill’s sponsor, Senator Terry Gauthier (R-Helena). Three Democrats and three Republicans co-sponsored the bill, and it passed through both chambers by a more than two-thirds majority, enjoying bipartisan support that’s all too rare in these polarized times.

We’re pleased to say that many of the opportunities pointed out in Trails in Crisis have been addressed. By raising the optional motor vehicle registration fee from $6 to $9, SB24 will generate $2 million every year to support state parks, trails, and fishing access sites.

The money generated will also be used to create a made-in-Montana grant program that will help communities and local user groups maintain existing trails and build new ones for motorized and non-motorized users alike. The solutions offered by SB24 are bipartisan, sustainable, and will benefit all Montana families by allowing them to continue to enjoy our public lands without having to pay through the nose for the privilege.

Public lands belong to all of us, and we should be able to enjoy them equally, regardless of wealth or status.

While it’s heartening to see steps being taken to protect the public lands that bring us together, we should remain realistic about the work that’s still needed to fund them properly. The increased optional fee established by SB24 will generate an estimated $2 million annually, but that money won’t become available to parks and trails until 2021, and will be just a drop in the bucket compared to the $22 million maintenance backlog facing state parks alone.

The $3 fee increase, as Sen. Gauthier has noted, only keeps up with the inflation that has occured since the last fee increase, and doesn’t even begin to address the mounting funding shortfalls facing our national forests, national parks, and other state lands. Montana has grown rapidly during that same period, and that growth has been driven in large part by our state’s incredible access to public-land hiking, hunting, riding, fishing, camping, and biking. This growth is forecasted to continue, and it will increase the pressure on our public lands as it does.

As pressure increases, so does the need for additional sustainable long-term funding to ensure that our public lands are adequately meeting the needs of our communities. We’re proud to support the work of the Montana Outdoor Heritage Project, which is a collaboration of Montana citizens, small businesses, conservation and recreation groups, and local communities interested in protecting, maintaining, and investing in our clean water, working lands, wildlife habitat, and access to Montana’s unique natural areas.

The group is hosting community conversations around the state to discuss our outdoor heritage and share our best ideas to better protect it, and recently launched a survey designed to gather information about whether and how Montana should invest new resources in our great outdoors. We encourage you to take the short survey and find a conversation near you at montanaheritageproject.com.

Our outdoor heritage bring us all together as Montanans, and it’s important that we work together to protect it. SB24 is a necessary first step, and we applaud everyone who worked so hard to help it become law, but it won’t save our public lands by itself. It’s essential that we continue the hard work of securing additional funding for the places that provide for our outdoor way of life. Now is the time to invest in our outdoor heritage to ensure that we can pass it on to future generations.

Bob Walker is executive director of Montana Trails Coalition and Kayje Booker is policy and advocacy director of Montana Wilderness Association

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