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The Missoulian

EDITORIAL June 16, 2006 

Sportsmen pay (a lot) to play:  Nature's bounty extends beyond what we can cut or dig on public lands.
Montana fishermen cast into the economy an average of $917 a year for sport-related goods and services. Hunters shell out nearly $950 a year apiece. Some of our spouses might argue those numbers are low. Let's just call them conservative, and leave it at that. The main point, driven home in a report issued by two conservation-minded organization is that traditional outdoor activities have tremendous economic importance, in addition to their social and cultural value.

The most recent figures are a bit dated (2001) so probably understate the actual economic impact. But sportsmen in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona spend more than $2.9 billion a year related to hunting and fishing. They also generate hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes that contribute to resource management. Across 11 Western states, hunting alone generates more than $1.3 billion in annual wages.

This is some of what the Missoula-based Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and the Tucson-based Sonoran Institute describe in their report as “Backcountry Bounty.”

Their report (www.trcp.org) goes beyond mere enumeration of sportsmen's spending. It connects some important dots to illustrate the connection between public lands and the economy. These groups offer a compelling counterpoint to the notion that logging, mining, grazing and drilling are the highest and best economic use of public lands in the West.
Public lands accommodate the majority of hunting and fishing in the West, they note. That alone makes them important. But much of nature's bounty as we know it might not be possible without these lands. “While wildlife call both public and private lands home,” the report points out, “the sheer size of public lands in the West makes them indispensable habitat to a multitude of species.”

Support - financial and political - from sportsmen helps protect these lands and resources. But it's a two-way street. These lands are part of the overall economic equation of the West. People who value fish and wildlife tend to be passionate in their interest. For many sportsmen, outdoor pursuits aren't merely a recreation. Rather, they're a big part of a way of life. Interesting, talented, skilled, productive people help our region prosper. Many of them live here specifically because of the outdoor lives they can lead here.

The “Backcountry Bounty” report focuses on hunting and fishing. In truth, there's a much broader spectrum of outdoor activities supported on public lands, activities that, in turn, help support our economies.

Among the interesting observations included in this report comes from a recent Sonoran Institute study showing that, among counties in the West, those with higher percentages of public lands have been growing faster than those with less public land. And the fastest growth is occurring in counties with the most “protected” public lands - such as designated roadless or wilderness areas. Why? Possibly because these protected areas tend to produce more and cleaner water and provide better wildlife habitat.

We don't seen in this report an argument against multiple-use management of public lands. Nothing says these lands ought to be managed only for fish and wildlife and the people who enjoy them most. However, “Backcountry Bounty” does make a strong case for properly weighing fish and wildlife and recreation when balancing competing uses of public land. There's economic value in our vast open spaces, and it's worth remembering that there's more than one way to extract that value.