In the 1987 Legislative session, Montana ventured into using state taxation powers to impose a four percent tax on hotels, motels and campgrounds for the express purpose of promoting tourism in our state. We would take millions of tax dollars and create a new bureaucracy to promote Montana’s scenic beauty, trout fishing, dude ranches, hunting, hiking, camping, open spaces, etc., to all of America and the world. We created the Travel Montana program and six Regional Tourism promotion programs. ‘Visit Montana’ — come one and all. We need your money. I was a legislator that session and answered the call of Livingston’s tourism-related businesses and cosponsored the bill.

It did not take very many years before I realized there is a limit to how much tourism we can handle without it seriously affecting our Montana resources and way of life.

Tourists have impacts and lots of tourists have lots of impacts. By 1993, Fishing Access Sites, trailheads, parks and rivers were being overrun. Weeds, trash, stream bank erosion, toilets, fire pits, trash collection and much more all required ongoing maintenance. Although money was tight in Helena, the program to promote tourism and thus expand the impacts on our communities and outdoor resources was flush with money — $5.4 million for state-sponsored promotion and $1.8 million for regional promotion. I sponsored a bill that legislative session to take a mere half a million dollars from those programs to use for state parks maintenance. The bill had 77 cosponsors and very bi-partisan support and became law. The travel industry was awestruck that the legislature would divert “their” money to address “their” impacts.

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Promotion continued to grow, tourism continued to grow and impacts continued to grow. In 1997, I introduced a bill to cut travel promotion in half with all the revenue taken from promotion to go to addressing local needs and impacts such as public restrooms, ambulance services, parks, trails, parking, safe cross walks, traffic control, urban landscapes and natural areas. I kept asking — when does the tourism industry start paying for some of its impacts? It didn’t happen in 1997 even though many papers in the state editorialized about the merits of the bill.

I tried again in 1999. However, the legislature was still not in the mood to reduce promotion of our special places. Since then, there has been little or no effort to control the squandering of tax dollars on a bureaucracy to promote tourism in a state that is saturated with tourists.

Are the citizens of Montana happy about all the tourists plugging up every recreational spot in the state? I’m guessing not. I’m also guessing that only those making money off the calamity can stomach the volume. The Madison and Missouri rivers have become so choked with boats it’s like bumper boats at a fair. Outfitters and guides took over the legislature to increase the marketing and killing of our public wildlife for their benefit — with a Governor showing how not to do it. We can’t have sane restrictions on fishing because there are so many outfitters and guides making a living off public resources — with little or no return to the rest of Montana’s citizens or protection and maintenance of the same resources. Our public campgrounds have become public parking lots with electricity to run TVs and porch lights on RVs. Many homes in our communities are now vacation rentals and are taking affordable housing away from potential homeowners. Growth in our state is rampant and newcomers are outbidding locals for homes. We just got a second Congressperson to commemorate our growth.

Here we are in an age where nearly everyone has access to a smart phone. There are many apps, developed by both private enterprise and various government agencies, available to show where to visit, what to see and do, when to go there, where to dine, where to fish and what to use, who to hire, how much to spend, where to hear music, how to get from here to there and so on. Just ask Google. In addition, rest areas, motels and local Chambers of Commerce are loaded with pamphlets provided by tourism related businesses.

And yet, this year, Montana government will spend millions of dollars again inviting people to visit Montana and stay awhile — and resources suffer. Really now, isn’t it time to take a big chunk of that promotion money and invest it in addressing tourism impacts? Tell your Legislator how you feel.

Bob Raney represented Livingston in the Montana Legislature from 1985 to 2000 and southwest Montana on the Public Service Commission from 2005 thru 2008.


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