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'Innovation Lab' Looks To Boost Montana's Outdoor Recreation Economy

Participants in the Montana Office of Outdoor Recreation’s outdoor lab gather around the fire at Whitefish Lake State Park, Oct. 10, 2019.
Aaron Bolton
Participants in the Montana Office of Outdoor Recreation’s outdoor lab gather around the fire at Whitefish Lake State Park, Oct. 10, 2019.";

The Montana Governor’s Office is searching for new ways to tap into the state’s outdoor economy — an economic engine already fueled by more than $7 billion spent in the state each year. The Office of Outdoor Recreation hosted what it billed as its first innovation lab in Whitefish, Thursday.

Outdoor recreation nonprofits, conservation groups, city, state and federal officials are getting a tour of Whitefish Lake State Park as part of the Montana Office of Outdoor Recreation’s first innovation lab. The two-day event is focused on frontcountry infrastructure like state parks and community trails.

According to a 2018 report from Headwaters Economics, state parks receive more than 2.5 million visitors a year. Rachel VandeVoort with the Office of Outdoor Recreation. 

“And basically it’s bringing teams and groups of people from communities that are interested in either creating opportunities, setting goals or troubleshoot past maybe roadblocks they’re experiencing creating outdoor infrastructure around,” she says.

The lab is connecting people who’ve successfully turned local public lands into an economic powerhouse with others who want to do the same in other parts of the state. On Tuesday they shared experiences ranging from finding out who holds land easements to creating public-private partnerships and even understanding the legal liabilities that come with a project.

Libby City Manager Jim Hammons says that’s why he’s here.

“And we’re building a biathlon course, partnered with the cross-country ski club in Libby and they’re doing it on city property. So some of the important things I want to learn about is the different liability, leases, MOUs, things like that that we can work with these groups that want to use our property,” he says.

According to a recent U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis report, the outdoor recreation industry accounts for 5.1 percent of Montana’s GDP in 2017. Again, VandeVoort.

“So it’s an extremely important portion of Montana’s economy,” she says.

The innovation lab follows the Outdoor Recreation Office’s first summit last year and VandeVoort says the office plans to hold future labs touching on various aspects of outdoor recreation.

Aaron graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Journalism in 2015 after interning at Minnesota Public Radio. He landed his first reporting gig in Wrangell, Alaska where he enjoyed the remote Alaskan lifestyle and eventually moved back to the road system as the KBBI News Director in Homer, Alaska. He joined the MTPR team in 2019. Aaron now reports on all things in northwest Montana and statewide health care.
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