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New license requirement worth the hassle

by Daily Inter Lake
| July 9, 2023 12:00 AM

Beginning this month, everyone who recreates on state lands will be required to purchase a Montana Conservation License to access many sites previously open with few restrictions to the public.

That includes people launching a boat, enjoying a hike, bird watching, swimming or simply having a family picnic.

The new policy is an effort to ensure the cost of maintaining state lands and public access points is shared by all users, not just the sportsmen and women who already pay a fee with their fishing and hunting licenses.

For Montana residents, the new cost is $8 annually, and $4 for kids ages 12-17 and seniors over 62. Out-of-staters will have to pony up $10.

While not necessary for state parks, the license is required to use state fishing access sites and enjoy wildlife management areas, of which there are plenty in the Flathead Valley.

Heading to Old Steel Bridge for a summer dip or planning to launch a paddleboard at Beaver Lake? You’ll need to have this new license in hand. Viewing wildlife at Bad Rock Canyon management area in Columbia Falls or the North Shore Wildlife area on Flathead Lake? Pay the fee in advance.

Understandably, the expanded license requirement has drawn criticism as cumbersome, costly and yet another layer between the public and public lands.

“So now we need a conservation license to walk through the forest or float the river? What are our state taxes paying for?” one person commented about the license fee on Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ Facebook page.

“Well that just made a lot of outdoor activities inaccessible to a large portion of our population. We already pay fees and taxes for FWP,” another chimed in.

Both fair points.

But what’s not fair is a system that places the burden of funding upkeep on these state lands solely on anglers and hunters, when they are enjoyed by a vast array of recreationists. Some estimates suggest up to 60% of users at fishing access sites are not wielding fishing poles at all.

It’s why the new fee policy has sweeping support from so-called hook and bullet groups like Trout Unlimited, Montana Wildlife Federation, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Montana Audubon and Montana Sportsman’s Alliance, among others.

“This tries to level the playing field so everyone has skin in the game now,” points out Dillon Tabish, FWP’s information and education program manager for Northwest Montana.

The new policy was born out of House Bill 521, sponsored by Republican Rep. Denley Loge of St. Regis, and received rare bipartisan support in the Republican supermajority Legislature. Remarkably, 80% of House members supported the measure that was ultimately signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte. A fiscal note on the bill projects the new fee schedule would raise about $660,000 annually, which will go to the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

The state is well aware that implementing the new requirements will likely be met with groans and bewilderment — which is why they have wisely decided to take a soft-launch approach. This first year will mainly be focused on education about the fee change. Beginning next spring, recreationalists that do not have their conservation license will get a written warning. On the second offense, a citation will be issued.

We encourage recreationists to be proactive in embracing this new policy, keeping in mind that the nominal fee will go a long way in helping maintain the access sites that bear the brunt of wear and tear on our treasured state lands.