Thank you, Montana. Over 11,000 of you completed the Montana Outdoor Heritage Survey this summer, which studied Montana attitudes about recreation, public lands, and the outdoors. Forward Montana Foundation was a key partner in this massive outreach effort; we primarily focused our attention on young people.
Across the state, we conducted community conversations and collected surveys at festivals, fairs and farmers markets. Four overarching themes emerged from youth perspectives: climate change, recreation, a need for inclusivity, and a willingness to pay for all three.
Climate change is the No. 1 concern for Montanans ages 18-29. Young people are distraught that the changing climate will have negative impacts on the places they live, work and play. The importance of taking action on climate is not just a national issue. Montana youth are also overwhelmingly passionate about this issue — likely because they have the most to lose. Young adults who responded to the survey indicated a commitment to taking proactive steps now to stem the effects of climate change and expressed a particular concern that disenfranchised populations are already feeling the impacts of a changing climate.
Young respondents also strongly identify with outdoor recreation. Recreation is the largest sector of the state’s economy and young people recognize its value to local businesses and to their connection to outside spaces. This demographic is also concerned that many of our favorite outdoor spaces are being loved to death. It is evident in the responses that young people wrestle with the impacts of recreation. They want public land access for all, but recognize that too much recreation can degrade the health of many of our favorite spaces. For solutions, they suggest increased education on leave-no-trace practices, building infrastructure in high-use areas to mitigate impacts, and increased access to public lands to spread the impact across more area.
Through these conversations and surveys, we heard that black, Indigenous, and people of color, as well as people belonging to the LGBTQ+ community and folks living with disabilities experience many barriers to our outdoor spaces. Thriving in the outdoors can be expensive, both in terms of needed gear and transportation. Conservation and public lands messaging often don’t prioritize or reflect the diversity of folks that use outdoor spaces. Changing recreation culture, with its predominant attitude of rugged individualism and hyper performance, will require a fundamental paradigm shift — outdoor organizations, tour agencies, outdoor equipment companies, local gyms, and many other organizations at every level of the recreation economy will need to adjust their programs to be inclusive and welcoming of different ways of experiencing outside spaces.
The Montana Outdoor Heritage Survey concluded by asking respondents whether they would personally invest to help address these challenges. Young people are overwhelmingly supportive, and are open to creative taxing solutions, like backpack taxes. They recommend allocating these additional funds to education, research and climate change reduction/infrastructure projects. For young folks, this is an investment both in the recreation economy and in a Montana way of life.
The Montana Outdoor Heritage Project had the incredible opportunity to talk to over 1% of our population in Montana, in conversations from Libby to Glasgow. Public land agencies, elected officials and the recreation economy at large would be wise to leverage the results of this project. There’s no doubt the conversations we started will last far into the future. Check out the full report at montanaheritageproject.com.
Emma Bode is the Bozeman field manager for the Forward Montana Foundation.