Montana Has Some Lessons For Maine
The snow-capped Rocky Mountains were off in the distance as I gazed out of my hotel room in Bozeman, Montana. I could just make out the mountains over the top of a shopping mall anchored by huge Target and Costco stores. Instead of the grassy meadow where I once saw fifty grazing whitetailed deer, my eyes gazed at pavement and a sprinkling of motor vehicles.
Even in this best-of-western-towns, one of the top ten places to live according to a 2007 U.S. News & World Report, our homogenized nation crowds out the unique characteristics of the West so it resembles everyplace, America.
Well, not exactly. Bozeman’s downtown remains distinctly western with local stores, restaurants, and offices. And within minutes of the city lies an outdoor paradise.
Late afternoons found me on nearby rivers – all within fifteen to thirty minutes of the city – catching rainbow and brown trout, the every-day detritus of civilization far far away. It was just me, the mountains, ranchland, and fast-moving rivers full of fish. I can only hope that Heaven is this nice.
A media fellowship from the Property and Environment Resource Center (PERC) provided the luxury of time to study collaborations and conflicts of sportsmen, environmentalists, landowners, and state agencies, focused on the competition for recreational use of public and private land. I also attended a PERC conference for journalists on water issues, a hot topic in the west.
PERC is a unique resource focused on the use of incentives to solve environmental problems, bringing a better understanding of how property rights, government bureaucracy, and collaborative processes affect environmental problems and solutions. PERC’s goal is to bring together economic thinking – especially about ways that markets can solve environmental problems – and environmental concerns. A lot of interesting information is available at PERC’s Web site, www.perc.org.
I accepted the fellowship knowing that Montana has many successful collaborative projects, great landowner relations programs, and activists who are devoted to their state’s uniqueness and beauty. And of course, they have great fishing!
It seemed like Maine could learn a lot from an examination of how these collaborations and programs work. And we can.
But something else astonished me and focused my attention in a new direction. Montana suffers significant conflicts, with sportsmen fighting guides and outfitters, ranchers closing their lands to all recreationists, nonresidents buying a lot of the land and recreational property, sprawl, and even battles between national and state environmental groups. With the exception of California, Montana must have more national groups at work than any other state.
Montana is revered for its mountains and rivers. But access to those rivers is contentious. Two court rulings issued this fall upheld public opportunities to use and access Montana waterways and set important precedents. As I sorted through all of these issues and problems during my fellowship, a few things became apparent.
The further removed you are from the land and the local community, the more difficult it is to solve problems. National groups have constituencies and agendas that make compromise difficult. State and regional groups are better placed to forge practical solutions, and local people and groups are the real drivers of collaboration.
The West is ahead of the curve in creating market-based solutions to environmental and recreational issues. Conservation groups purchase water rights to protect rivers and fish habitat. Sportmen, guides, and outfitters lease private land for hunting and fishing. The state Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department collects fees from recreationists and gives the money to landowners for habitat management and recreational access.
Maine is fortunate to have the new Natural Resources Network, an alliance of large and small landowners, farmers, commercial fishermen, aquaculture, and sportsmen’s groups. In Montana, some of these groups are antagonists.
Montana is our future. Maine landowners have begun looking for ways to make money from recreational use of their property. Access to moving water, which is not guaranteed in Maine, is becoming more difficult. Sprawl continues to gobble up rural land, especially as the beauty of our rivers is discovered. And traditional alliances are likely to break down over issues like habitat protection and recreational use of private and public lands.
But the news is not all bleak. New alliances can be built. Recreationists, landowners, and state agencies can find new ways that allow our special outdoor heritage to thrive. Maine can use markets and incentives to protect what we value. Indeed, we’re going to have no choice in that. We’ll get what we pay for in the future. Nothing will be free.
The good old days are gone. But the new days can be just as good. If we escape our insularity we can pick from the good things others have done – including our friends in Montana – to shape a Maine that protects our spectacular quality of life.