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Outdoor recreation is a crucial component of Montana’s economy, according to organizers and panelists at the Last Best Outdoors Fest in downtown Missoula on Wednesday.

The state’s nearly 34 million acres of public lands and the people who use them contribute directly to $7.1 billion in annual consumer spending and 71,000 jobs in the state. That's per a recent report from Headwaters Economics and Business For Montana’s Outdoors, a grant-funded organization that advocates for public land.

Anglers, cyclists, hunters, hikers, guides, boaters, ATV riders, cattle-grazers and loggers all benefit from well-managed, accessible and healthy forests, lakes, rivers and prairies, according to Marne Hayes, the executive director of Business for Montana’s Outdoors.

But she also is working to spread awareness that the booming tech industry in places like Missoula and Bozeman is also linked with strong public lands access, because employees who could choose to work elsewhere want to live and play in a state with bountiful skiing and fishing opportunities.

“We want to add to the conversation about the economic impact from a broader sense so we’re not always just talking about recreation,” she said.

Hayes said even the most rural communities in Montana have recreation opportunities and they, too, benefit.

“I’ve sat on panels in far eastern Montana to far northwestern Montana where they talk about the value of people coming in to their communities to recreate,” she said. “So it might not be that they’re recruiting or retaining technology businesses but they are definitely benefiting from the value of recreation in their community and their county to some degree. So I think the recreation piece comes into a bigger play for the rural communities, even if they’re not tourist towns.”

Hayes said access is the biggest issue, along with protecting public lands. Montana counties surrounded by more public lands and recreation opportunities have faster-growing economies than those that don’t, according to Headwaters’ report.

“I think as we start to chisel away at access and protected lands that is what we hear most as far as concerns from people,” she said. “I would also say there are far more opportunities talked about than concerns.”

Her organization organized a panel discussion on Wednesday at the Wilma Theater featuring a variety of business owners in the western Montana area who say public lands and outdoor recreation are vital to their industry. The panel also featured Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who reintroduced the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act this past June. The bill would add certain lands to the National Wilderness Preservation System and designate new areas for recreation, but it still has to be passed by the U.S. Senate.

The panel focused on the Act and its collaborative nature.

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Jim Stone, a third-generation cattle rancher from Ovando, said the Act has brought together diverse groups to talk about everything they have in common. Tester said that was one of his main takeways.

“These groups got together and agreed on far more than they disagreed,” he recalled.

Connie Long and her family own and operate Bob Marshall Wilderness Outfitters, which specializes in traditional horseback family vacations and fair chase wilderness elk and mule deer hunts. She said she’s noticed more Europeans coming to visit Montana because they don’t have wild and protected public lands in as much abundance back home.

Brent Campbell, the CEO of WGM Group in Missoula, said his planning and engineering firm has been able to attract employees who want to live and work next to ski areas, rivers, wilderness areas and hunting opportunities.

“Front country is very much a part of our employees’ values and who we hire,” he said. "If you notice, WGM headquarters are located near Forest Service lands, trails, rivers and skiing. It’s no coincidence. These public lands are a crucial part of our business plan and our ability to attract the best talent in engineering."

Campbell also said the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act is a “proactive way” to benefit the state’s future and its economy.

Evan Tipton, the founder and CEO of TOMIS, said his company makes software for locally owned tour operators. He noted that the software engineers he hires are able to purchase houses here, which increases the tax base and builds the economy.

“We have a civic responsibility to protect the grandeur of our mountains and the quiet beauty of this state for future generations,” he said.

The data for Headwaters report come from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Computing Technology Industry Association. They were compiled by the Outdoor Industry Association.

The event on Wednesday was co-sponsored by the Montana Wilderness Association, the Montana Wildlife Federation and the Wilderness Society.

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