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Montana outdoor advocacy group finds links in between wilderness and public, economic health

Calls for full funding of Land and Water Conservation Fund
Posted at 4:30 PM, Dec 18, 2019

Billings business and healthcare leaders met for a round table discussion Tuesday to explore the intersections between Montana's outdoor recreation opportunities, and the physical and economic health of the state.

“As you think about the reasons we choose to be in Montana, the ability to drive 15 minutes that way and you have complete isolation and the ability to reflect with only the stars. I think those things we can all share," said panelist Todd Buchanan, a broker with Buchanan Capital.

Advocacy group Business for Montana's Outdoors hosted the discussion at the Red Oxx Manufacturing building at 1123 Second Ave. N. in Billings.

"We had a group of healthcare professionals and a group of economic development professionals and we got to use the outdoors as the common denominator to talk about the value of their respective priorities connected through the outdoors," said Business for Montana's Outdoors Executive Director Marne Hayes.

The discussion made the case that Congress should fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). That fund is a 50-year-old program that distributes federal dollars among the states to build outdoor recreation infrastructure like fishing access sites, city parks, and trails.

Hayes said in the last 10 years, Montana has received $245 million in LWCF money that helped complete 800 community projects.

Outdoor advocates say the LWCF should receive congressional funding, because investments in the outdoors benefit public health and the state economy.

"It was reauthorized at the end of last year. It is sitting in Congress with no funding currently. And without money, that program won’t go," Hayes said. “If the funds go away, then the benefits will go away.”

Representatives from the Billings Clinic and St. Vincent Healthcare mentioned how Montana's outdoors plays a crucial role in staff recruitment and retention. Both hospitals advertise jobs in various medical journals with real images of the Montana landscape.

“The hardest thing for us is getting people here. Once we get them here, we can sell them," said Dr. Jeff Zavala, chief medical officer at St. Vincent.

Once he gets a recruit to town, he'll have them drive to Red Lodge to see the Beartooth Mountains and back to Billings through Columbus. After that trip, most candidates want to stay, Zavala said.

Outdoor recreation is big business in Montana. According to research done by Business for Montana's Outdoors, the outdoor economy generates $7.1 billion in consumer spending yearly and supports 71,000 jobs.