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Middle Fork Flathead

Floaters enjoy a quiet reach of the Middle Fork of the Flathead River that passes through the heart of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. The river was one of the inspirations for the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. 

Outfitting and guiding are bringing significant and growing dollars to Montana, according to a new report from the University of Montana's Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research.

Last year, spending on outfitters and guides hit $374 million by nonresidents, or 11 percent of all visitor spending, according to the study. It reached the fourth-highest spending category by nonresidents, surpassed only by fuel, restaurants and lodging.

Jeremy Sage, economist and associate director of the institute, said one takeaway from the report is the growing importance of "experience-based tourism." The report is called "Montana's Outfitting Industry: 2017 Economic Contribution and Industry-Client Analysis," and it is available online

"We're not just selling stuff," said Sage, lead researcher of the study. "We're selling experiences, and Montana has lots of experiences. The more we can provide quality ones … the more we can demonstrate the demand for Montana."

The findings come from a survey distributed to 1,090 email recipients, with a response rate of 35.6 percent, or 388. Of all respondents, 89 percent indicated "they provided some type of outfitting or guiding service in 2017."

The study noted a shift in outfitting and guiding. In the past, the industry was tied closely to hunting, fishing and rafting, but in recent years, it has grown to include other activities "of the Montana outdoor recreation experience." The report cited horseback riding and wildlife viewing as examples.

Mac Minard, executive director of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, agreed the experiences available in Montana are bringing tourists. He said even llama trekking, or classes in long-range shooting or Dutch oven cooking, can be draws for visitors.

"They're looking for an experience, not a destination," Minard said.

The report said outfitters and guides served more than 700,000 clients last year, and 63 percent of those were from outside Montana. The study counted the amount of money visitor groups who hired guides spent at $791 million.

Although the total amount is large, Minard said in rural economies such as Glasgow and Sidney, outfitting has a disproportionate benefit. In fact, he said that in discussions with tourism advisory councils, he has come to believe future sustainable tourism in rural economies will be tied heavily to the outfitted experience.

"It may be the lifeline of those communities economically," Minard said.

Sage also discussed spreading the wealth across Montana. As the industry takes hold and grows in the state, he said it will be important to minimize the "concentration of impacts" and maximize the shared benefit.

"I think a key to it is understanding how we work to distribute these visitors and their activities across the state," Sage said.

The institute looked at the industry more than a decade ago, and Sage said one significant change is that people are spending more money on outfitted or guided experiences than on retail. The report described the change and impact:

"In recent years, nonresident visitor spending on outfitters and guides has surpassed that of spending on retail goods, making it the fourth-highest spending category behind only fuel, lodging, and dining out. This rise comes despite only 5 [percent] to 6 percent of the visiting population taking part in these activities.

"This observation reiterates findings from the 2007 Montana Outfitter and Guide study characterizing the outfitting industry as high value, low impact. The high value is generated via the high average daily spending ($481) compared to the average visitor ($128) as well as the extended length of time spent in the state (7.28 days) compared to the average visitor (4.73 days).

"The low impact is a statement to the low volume of visitors making up the high economic contribution."

The report also noted that 39 percent of all clients took part in water trips, such as rafting or kayaking adventures. "Fishing was the next highest client volume activity," said a news release about the report. "By revenue generated from the outfitters and guides, fishing and hunting outfitters stood above all others, with 33 and 24 percent of all outfitting revenues, respectively."

The report itself also cited factors that could "limit or deter" visitors from coming to Montana in the future, such as extended fire seasons. "If this trend of prolonged and damaging fire seasons continues, many of the businesses surveyed expressed concerns over their ability to adapt."

The study also noted "rivers in Montana have experienced their own battles with Mother Nature in recent years." It examined a specific temporary closure of a portion of the Yellowstone River and its tributaries due to an invasive parasite along with low water, high temperatures and recreational pressure.

"Should the need to increasingly curtail or restrict water-based recreation arise, significant economic impacts are likely to be felt across the region," the report said.

The study also cited a 2016 U.S. Department of Agriculture report on recreation trends projected through 2030. "Overall, 14 of 17 activities showed average declines in total days of participation when accounting for climate change. The percentage point decline was greatest for three activities: snowmobiling, undeveloped skiing (cross-country skiing, snowshoeing), and floating (canoeing, kayaking, rafting), accounting for average net decreases of 39, 36, and 9 percentage points, respectively."

Currently, the report about Montana notes fishing represents the largest "revenue generating trip types for the outfitters and guides themselves" at $76 million, and it cites hunting at $55.3 million. It also notes that 90 percent of fishing clients and 85 percent of hunting clients are from outside the state.

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University of Montana, higher education