The Natural Capital 

Travel, tourism and the Treasure State’s real treasure

One bright spot in the Montana economy for the last decade has been travel and tourism. Nonresident travel now ranks as the fifth largest industry in the state, generating 31,000 jobs and $585 million in income annually. Jobs in the banking and finance industry, in landscaping, in heating repair businesses, and a hundred other sectors now depend on Montana’s annual influx of 9 million travelers.

With so many jobs in the balance, it is past time to ask some questions about how to make the tourism industry sustainable and stable. The first question is what we want tourism to stably sustain. Earlier this year, the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research (ITRR) completed a survey of tourism industry businesspeople, asking them what things sustainable tourism would provide, besides the Almighty Dollar.

The tourism industry responded that we ought to sustain Montana’s cultural heritage, community economic stability, and quality of life. These are values that most Montanans share. And they are threatened by tourism and the development that accompanies it, whether because an influx of summer homes drives up property values, or because L.L. Beaners are scaring the fish out of our favorite holes.

To protect ourselves from tourism fallout, we need smart growth management. We also need smart—and in some cases restrictive—recreation management. Both are complicated and difficult issues, and both will only get more difficult. I’m afraid that there is no silver bullet for dealing with the changes that accompany growth in population and tourism, and can only urge that we acknowledge that the frontier is closed—planning and limits are necessary to protect the things we value. A much easier question to address is how to keep folks coming here with their fat wallets. An ITRR study a decade ago found that “wildlands-based” activities (hiking, fishing, watching for wildlife) support about half of the state’s total travel industry. “The mountains” are the number one reason tourists come here, and Glacier National Park (the nation’s premier wilderness park) is visitors’ favorite destination. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that Americans visiting Montana each year for hunting, fishing, and wildlife-observation related activities drop a cool $300 million each year.

Clearly, folks are coming here for our wildlands. Some make annual pilgrimages to the Bob Marshall Wilderness, some enjoy the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness from the windows of their 35-foot highway houseboats. But in a global economy in which we compete with Monte Carlo and Disney World for tourists, wilderness is Montana’s comparative advantage. As Steve McCool and Norma Nickerson put it in a recent ITRR report, “Natural capital in Montana is represented primarily in its wildlands, such as national parks and forests, wilderness and wild rivers, and undeveloped prairies.” Right now, “Montana” acts like a brand name that means “wild.” But Montana has protected less wilderness than states like Washington, Arizona, and California. In a dozen years folks might laugh at our “last, best place” motto the way we laugh now at New Jersey as “the Garden State.” If all we offer visitors is a place to drive off-road machines and catch stocked fish, they’ll go to Minnesota, where the straight-aways are longer and the trash fish more prolific.

Again, McCool and Nickerson: “Since much of Montana’s tourism industry is based upon natural environments and cultural heritage, the sustainability of the industry is linked directly to actions that protect and maintain the quality of those products.” In 1992, the Governor’s Council for Montana’s Future concluded that “Montana’s quality natural environment and its strong citizen support for maintaining a sustainable environment and high quality of life provide the underlying foundation for the Department of Commerce to focus business efforts upon environmental protection.” Instead, Racicot’s agencies and chambers of commerce have championed mining on the Blackfoot River and oil and gas drilling on the Rocky Mountain Front.

Extractive industry, motor sports, and other forms of development have an important place in Montana, but those who promote these uses in our remaining wildlands are as short-sighted as the booster who dropped Michigan lake trout into Lake Yellowstone to promote a sport fishery. More than two-thirds of Montanans believe that tourism can help their communities develop in the right direction. But like any industry, tourism has unintended and unwanted impacts. We need to start wrestling now with how to welcome travelers without turning main street into Wall Drug. And it’s time to acknowledge that we do eat the scenery, and put our money where our mouth is.

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