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Protect wilds of Montana: Roadless areas are the backbone of state’s tourism economy

Protect wilds of Montana: Roadless areas are the backbone of state’s tourism economy

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Montana’s wild country is priceless, but that doesn’t mean we can’t put a few dollar signs on it.

In fact, the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana has done just that. The institute reports out-of-state tourism contributes some $2.45 billion annually to the Montana economy and more than 34,000 Montanans have jobs related to tourism.

Take a moment to consider what attracts tourists (and their money) to Montana. It’s our state’s beauty and character, our clean water and great fishing, our wildlife and unmatched hunting, our wide-open spaces and wild places.

A bill in Congress – co-sponsored by Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont. – that would strip protection of roadless areas in our national forests threatens the very best of these qualities. House Bill 1581 takes aim at backcountry areas, the watersheds for our trout streams and the most secure areas for our elk and other wildlife. This bill, the Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act, threatens the very beauty and character of our landscape.

That’s why, on March 14, 100 business owners from 30 different communities across Montana sent a letter to our congressional delegation encouraging them to oppose the development of our roadless lands. Businesses from small towns like East Glacier Park and Twin Bridges were on the list, as well as businesses from larger cities like Missoula and Billings. Each and every business depends on roadless lands, and the list is growing.

This isn’t the first time roadless lands have been threatened. For decades – since the 1970s – some politicians have taken turns trying to force development of roadless lands. The issue has been studied to death, legislated ad nauseum and litigated endlessly. Public support for roadless-area protections has always been strong. Each time roadless areas come under attack, Montanans, including businesses like outfitters, fishing guides, sporting goods dealers and others that benefit from and market the Montana experience are forced to stop what they’re doing to rise in defense. This costs time, and it costs money.

Yet there they go again. No wonder public approval of Congress is at an all-time low. The rules protecting roadless areas are the product of the most extensive rulemaking process in government history, made with full state and citizen participation. After years of lawsuits in lower courts, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in November upheld the roadless rules in the strongest terms. Roadless-area protections have proved scientifically sound, publicly supported and legally valid. At what point will those who oppose roadless-area protection accept the will of the people and move on?

Montana’s backcountry is important to many people for many reasons. For those of us whose business success is tied to wildland resources and qualities, roadless protection amounts to economic development. Our roadless areas add diversity to our landscape – and diversity to the opportunities and attractions we can offer tourists.

For that reason, attacks on Montana’s roadless lands are an attack on our businesses. It’s as simple as that. So, it’s surprising to see our own Congressman Rehberg is co-sponsoring H.B. 1581. He clearly overlooks the contribution roadless areas make to businesses like ours and Montana’s tourism and outdoor recreation economy.

Roadless areas make up a small fraction of all the land in Montana – less than 7 percent. We have tens of millions of acres more or less wide open for development, logging, mining and other industrial, agricultural or commercial uses. We have thousands and thousands of miles of roads in our national forests, along with countless miles of off-road-vehicle trails.

But we also have some wilder places at the end of the roads. Having a few wild places relatively nearby to communities adds a dimension to our economy that just punching another road into the mountains never could match. The jobs tied to protected wild lands are sustainable – in perpetuity.

We’d welcome an opportunity to visit with our congressman to explain the connection between Montana backcountry and Montana paychecks. We’d love a chance to enlist him as an ally in protecting the diversity of Montana and its economy.

Smoke Elser, a wilderness outfitter from Missoula, is the subject of the new PBS documentary “Three Miles an Hour”; Jerry Kustich is the owner of Sweetgrass Rods in Twin Bridges; and Jeff Ball owns and operates the Magpie Guest House in Bozeman with his wife, Kathy.

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