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Every now and then a program comes along that makes so much sense you wonder why is wasn't created a long time ago.

That thought sums up Travelers for Open Land, a voluntary land conservation program created in 2009 by a Big Sky business owner. Travelers for Open Land operates under the basic premise that the

10 million tourists who visit here every year - and the 900,000 or so of us who live here - do so in part to enjoy the tremendous outdoor recreation in Montana.

Every survey of nonresidents shows Montana is the destination for hiking, hunting, horseback riding, snowmobiling, four-wheeling, bird watching, fishing, viewing wildlife and much more. The Montana experience is invariably an outdoor experience.

Travelers for Open Land was created to help keep it that way.

As we enter the apex of the Montana tourist season in August, now is a perfect time to extol the benefits of Travelers for Open Land.

Mike Scholz, owner of Buck's T-4 Lodge near Big Sky, knows that to have a quality Montana outdoor experience you need abundant open land. Scholz has said that open land has been good to his family, good to his business and good to his industry, and in return he wanted to find a way for the lodging and hospitality industry to participate in protecting open lands.

From a lodging and hospitality industry perspective, open lands are assets and the Travelers program helps protect those assets. So Travelers is not only good for the landscape, it's good for business and good for the economy.

The program is simple and direct. Participating businesses - hotels and motels, resorts, outfitters with lodging, bed and breakfasts, fly shops, rafting companies and other recreation- and tourism-related businesses - promote the Travelers program to guests and customers. The guests and customers in turn are encouraged to make a small donation to the program.

Funds raised through the program are awarded to land trusts, who work with landowners to conserve land. Every aspect of the program is voluntary: from sign-up by the participating business, to the guest or customer who makes the contribution, to the landowner who conserves his or her land.

The concept of Travelers for Open Land fits perfectly with the way the Montana Office of Tourism promotes our state, and also fits perfectly with the type of traveler encouraged to visit here. Geo-travelers want an authentic experience, they value and respect that experience, and they want to give something back to help protect that authentic experience for future generations.

Several Missoula area businesses are participating in the Travelers for Open Land program, including local hotels, bed and breakfasts and outfitters with lodging. Lucy Weeder at the Best Western Grant Creek Inn is on the TFOL working group. The Missoula participating businesses helped raise $10,000 statewide in 2009 - not bad for a program started up in the teeth of the Great Recession - and helped fund four outstanding Montana conservation projects.

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The four Travelers grants awarded to land trusts help fund protection of prairie grasslands in north-central Montana, help maintain a working ranch and access to public land in the Bridger Mountain foothills, help protect critical bird habitat and water quality near Flathead Lake and help fund a Five Valleys Land Trust project that protects highly valued land along Rock Creek just east of Missoula.

What can you do to help? If you own a tourist or recreation-based business, learn more about Travelers for Open Land and sign up to participate. There is no cost for businesses to join, and all funds raised are devoted to land conservation.

As a consumer, look for businesses participating in Travelers and let them know you appreciate their effort and commitment to open lands. And don't forget to make a contribution to the program. By doing so, you'll help protect Montana's natural assets now and far into the future.

Glenn Marx is program coordinator for Travelers for Open Land and executive director of the Montana Association of Land Trusts. To see a list of area participating businesses and to learn more about the program visit Travelers for Open Land on the web at www.travelersforopenland.org.

 

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