Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Figuring out Fish Creek

Posted on Wed, Feb 26, 2014 at 2:00 PM

A recent call for public comment on the Fish Creek State Park Draft Management Plan has reinvigorated the debate between those who see economic opportunity in the development of public lands and those who believe that development of any kind spoils the very land we would seek to enjoy (see "Fight over Fish Creek," Jan. 29).

Outspoken factions on both sides of the discussion take a very "all or nothing" approach and that is just not realistic. Montanans know how to enjoy public lands without spoiling them, and create economic success along the way. We've been doing it for as long as people have traveled to our state to enjoy the spectacular, unspoiled nature here!

Fish Creek State Park presents a unique opportunity to create a regional destination in Mineral County, an especially hard-hit area of the state following the decline of the timber industry. It is irresponsible to see communities in our state struggling economically when they have such a valuable commodity that so many of our visitors are willing to pay top dollar to enjoy.

Now, I don't think anyone on the pro-development side envisions steering millions of our non-resident visitors to Fish Creek every year and trampling the pristine landscape there. Just 11,000 total visitors over the course of an entire year could infuse as much as $4 million to $9 million into Mineral County's economy. That's good news for the hoteliers, outfitters and guides and other small businesses in the area that see much of their prospective business pass them by on the way to Missoula or Yellowstone or Glacier.

It's important to put the number "11,000" into perspective. That's less than one-10th of a percent of the total number of non-resident visitors to our state in 2013. It's less than half the average number of visitors to the 11 state parks in Region 2 in 2012. And it's a little more than twice the number of visitors that visited Fish Creek State Park alone in 2012, which in that year were almost exclusively Montanans.

The great thing about Fish Creek is that it has all the components of a year-round destination that would allow for an even distribution of increased visitation. Anglers would flock to the area from spring through fall; summer brings hikers, campers, rafters and wildlife watchers; and winter brings hunters and snowmobilers. But we've got to develop the amenities and infrastructure, especially the campgrounds and trail system, to support these activities while protecting the land and the nearby watershed.

So that brings the discussion to the next challenge. How do we pay for it? Using state taxpayer dollars exclusively to fund the procurement and operations and maintenance of public lands with little or no public support to make them economically viable is unrealistic and irresponsible. We have to find more creative ways that responsibly fund public lands while sharing the financial load with other public and private entities.

Public and private partnerships with concessionaires, construction developers and management firms are the key to the long-term conservation of our public lands and their economic viability. It allows the state to retain its authority for the stewardship of a place like Fish Creek while allowing local businesses and entrepreneurs to have some skin in the game as they pursue profitability.

Wouldn't a local business dependent on the land's preservation be its most ardent conservationist and protector? I'm sure the answer from the outfitters and guides that already operate along the Clark Fork would be an emphatic, "Yes!"

But there is a role for our federal government to play and one it has not done well in recent decades. The Land and Water Conservation Fund is America's premier conservation program. Created in 1965, the LWCF is funded exclusively by a small percentage of offshore oil and gas revenues (not taxpayer dollars) up to $900 million annually. Yet nearly every year, the majority of LWCF funds are diverted to other unintended purposes. The impact of LWCF on Montana cannot be overstated. Nearly 70 percent of our state's fishing access sites were created with LWCF.

Yet, less than $3 million dollars from the LWCF has been spent on conservation efforts in western Montana over the last decade and no LWCF funds have been spent in Mineral County since 1990. The primary reason: The LWCF is underfunded at the national level, which means ever decreasing amounts are available for all 50 states to share.

If we are to seriously manage the conservation (and continued expansion) of our existing state parks, fishing access sites, wildlife refuges and wilderness areas we have got to engage our federal legislators on this subject and urge them to support fully funding the LWCF. The LWCF would provide a viable source of funding for the conservation of our public lands allowing state funds to be better used in their management and development.

Mike Garcia

Director

Voices of Montana Tourism

Helena

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