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Trails Check-in Promotes Sharing, Economic Benefits

 

Sara Schmidt

Representatives from the Montana Department of Natural Resources & Conservation, The Nature Conservancy, Bureau of Land Management, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks and the U.S. Forest Service answered questions and shared information about strategies for working with the various agencies.

LINCOLN – Trails connecting communities to each other, people to the community and dollars to the local economy were the main discussion points at the day-long Southwest Crown Regional Trails Check-in Feb. 28 in Lincoln. The check-in was a continuation of the conversation that was started at the initial Southwest Crown Regional Trails Summit May 2015. It allowed groups to reconnect and share information about what projects are being worked on, learn from one another and to be more efficient in existing and future projects.

The Blackfoot Challenge partnered with the Seeley Lake and Lincoln Ranger Districts, Western Conservation Project, Wilderness Society and Five Valley Lands Trust to host the check-in. More than 120 people were invited representing more than 60 different groups and agencies from Lincoln, Seeley Lake, the Swan Valley, Arlee, Missoula, Ovando and throughout the Blackfoot watershed.

"There is no planning effort. There is no agenda," said Sara Schmidt, Blackfoot Challenge's outreach coordinator. "It was just to share information. When you are looking at recreation development on a 1.5 million acre watershed, it's a lot harder to move forward and find what everybody agrees on. Where [Blackfoot Challenge] focuses its effort is bringing the conversation to a regional scale."

Part of the morning discussions included updates from various groups on their trail projects and a panel discussion including state and federal agencies and non-profit organizations that are large landowners in the region.

"A lot of people thought it would be helpful to better understand how to be more effective at partnering with them on trails projects if individuals in the community are interested in expanding recreational opportunities on land they manage," said Schmidt.

While the panelists agreed that recreation and trails are important for the economy and enjoyment of the area, they agreed that they all have different priorities that they need to balance and recreation is just one of them. Many of the panelists agreed that it is most helpful when recreation groups come to them united because it is difficult if not impossible to respond to individual requests. And long-term partnerships are critical to realizing recreation opportunities. The most frequent example was the agencies relying on volunteers to maintain trails on U.S. Forest Service and state lands.

"I think Rachel Feigley [Seeley Lake District Ranger] put it best when she said [to the attendees] it's about figuring out how you can help us help you accomplish what you want," said Schmidt.

The economic benefits of trails and outdoor recreation dominated the discussion in the afternoon.

Lee Boman with Seeley Lake ROCKS and the Montana Wilderness Society cited a 2012 study by Outdoor Industry Association that reported recreationists spend $646 billion per year nationally. In Montana, it is around $6 billion creating 64,000 jobs.

"The outdoor recreation industry is an overlooked economic giant," said Boman.

Ginny Sullivan with Adventure Cycling Association said more Americans bike than play golf, tennis or ski combined making it the second most popular outdoor recreation activity in the United States.

An average median income of an Adventure Cycling member is $81,500 per year. The Institute for Tourism & Recreation Research reported in 2014 that cyclists in Montana are spending an average of $75 per day. Sullivan added that could easily go up to $100 per day during participation in a bike tour. The study also reported that cyclists staying an average of 8.8 nights in Montana added an estimated $377 million to Montana's economy in 2012.

Sullivan said that while on tour cyclists look for places to: sleep, eat and drink, wash laundry, buy supplies, purchase groceries, recreate, repair and tune bikes and hang out with other cyclists or locals. Ovando was highlighted as an example of a community that has become a destination for cyclists.

"Cyclists come from all over the world and talk about Ovando," said Kathy Schoendoerfer, owner of the Blackfoot Angler in Ovando. "We're famous."

The Blackfoot Angler, whose customers are mostly fishermen, now carries bike tubes, tires, chains and other cycling essentials. The community of Ovando has opened up lodging in downtown including the Ovando Inn, an old sheep wagon, teepee and the Brand Bar Museum rents out the historic "hooscow" (old jail) for five dollars per night.

Because of the friendly atmosphere and amenities cyclists are looking for, Ovando has become a spot on the map for the cycling community. Schoendoerfer estimates that 1,000 visitors come through town now that they are cyclist friendly, versus the couple hundred they started with.

Chris Mehl with Headwaters Economics shared several studies and statistics that linked trails to economic benefits and lessons learned about community trails and their benefits.

James Sylvester with the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana found in his study "Montana Recreational Snowmobiles: Fuel Use and Spending Patterns 2013" that the average resident snowmobilers spend $108 per day and the average non-resident snowmobilers spends $148 per day. Residents account for 93 percent of the snowmobiling days in 2013.

Schmidt said it was interesting to hear that they could only find one study nationally that talked about summer motorized use and non-winter motorized use.

"There is definitely a gap in the data there," said Schmidt. "People said that it is a pretty significant aspect of Lincoln's economy especially in the summer time."

Mehl highlighted lessons Headwaters Economics has learned about community trails:

• Not all trails bring all benefits. Prioritize trail development according to a community's needs.

• Trails generate business impacts when they attract visitors, especially overnight visitors.

• Communities can best capitalize on trails when they are directly linked to town, spur trails or shuttles.

• Trails can also help to distinguish a community from others, helping to recruit new residents and businesses, and retain current residents and businesses.

• The greater the diversity of trails, the greater the attraction.

• Community trails also are used heavily by residents and contribute to quality of life.

For more information visit Headwaters Economics' Trails Benefits Library available at https://headwaterseconomics.org/trail

Schmidt said that participants were sent a survey following the check to gather their thoughts on the next steps.

"I think there is real opportunity to expand to a regional project, like a map, but that would be a more intensive effort [than the Blackfoot Challenge could lead right now]," said Schmidt. "We got the impression that people appreciated the opportunity to learn from one another and hear what everyone has going on and funding sources. We are also asking for specific topics or specific skills they would like to learn about [an example was working with private landowners]."

Schmidt recognized that holding the summit on a weekday was a challenge for people to attend. She appreciated those who were able to attend even for a couple hours and hopes to be more sensitive to that in the future.

 

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