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Claims survey affirms policy decisions

by Jason Ellsworth
| May 8, 2024 2:00 AM

A recent University of Montana survey confirms what legislators have been hearing from our constituents: Montanans are seriously concerned about several issues that they say are negatively impacting quality of life.

Among the findings, 90% think that urban sprawl eating up open lands is a problem, 84% are worried about Montana’s changing character, and 78% think outdoor recreation is becoming overcrowded. The 2023 Legislature passed legislation to take steps at addressing all of those issues, some of which is now in effect and some of which is currently being held up in court. 

On the outdoor recreation front, the Legislature passed House Bill 846 to preserve Montanans’ access to the treasured Smith River in Central Montana, the only river that requires float permits because demand for recreation access already exceeds what the river can support. HB 846 capped out-of-staters to only getting 10% of the float permits each year, reserving 90% for Montanans. It also implemented the bonus point system that most hunters are familiar with, ensuring that your odds of drawing a Smith permit increase after every year you don’t draw. 

Two bills were targeted at preserving both Montana’s character and outdoor recreation overcrowding. HB 440 caps campground reservations at 80% of all available sites at state-controlled camping areas. Some campsites now routinely become totally full, but HB 440 ensures that the Montana tradition of being able to grab your tent or hitch up your camper after work on a Friday and head out can remain alive, with campsites available on the traditional first-come, first-serve basis. 

The second bill, Senate Bill 540, put additional restrictions on how the Department of Commerce can promote tourism. It prohibits the department from spending lodging tax money to promote tourism in already-popular and overcrowded destinations, like Whitefish or Bozeman. Instead, any state-funded tourism promotion has to encourage tourists to visit rural communities, especially those in Eastern Montana, that still want and need more tourism for their local economies. It also allows lodging tax money to be used for workforce housing infrastructure in rural tourism destinations like Gardiner. 

Finally, to simultaneously address the problems of housing unaffordability and urban sprawl, the Legislature passed a series of pro-housing bills to allow more houses to be built within existing cities. We need more housing, but that housing doesn’t have to eat up all of our open spaces, if we allow more building within city boundaries. 

The first three bills are now law. So are two of the four big housing reforms. But two of the other housing bills are blocked in court. To keep solving the challenges that Montanans say are decreasing quality of life, we need the courts to end their blockade and quickly dispose of this frivolous litigation. 

The reason we all live in Montana is because of the quality of life here. Nothing is more important to the future of our state than preserving, protecting, and restoring what makes Montana, Montana.

Senator Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, is the President of the Montana Senate