Montana’s Outdoor Industry Recovers
Bob Pepalis, The Center Square
Montana’s outdoor recreation industry suffered huge losses in the first three months of 2020 because of the pandemic, but it made a major turnaround for the rest of the year, according to an industry representative.
Across the nation, the outdoor recreation economy fell 19% from 2019 to 2020, compared with a 3.4% decrease for the overall U.S. economy, according to recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA). The value of the goods and services produced by the nation’s economy for the outdoor recreation economy decreased 17.4%, while outdoor recreation compensation fell 12.5% and employment decreased 17.1%.
In Montana, outdoor recreation value added was 4.3% of the state’s gross domestic product, or $2.2 billion, according to BEA data. Outdoor recreation employment decreased in 2020 nationwide, and fell 17.5% in Montana. That still meant more than 26,000 people were employed in the industry in the state, with compensation of more than $1.1 billion, the agency said.
Staycations and hastily developed COVID health safety procedures helped the industry recover, according to Mac Minard, executive director of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association (MOGA).
“The fishing industry suffered probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 to 45% vacancy, we lost almost all of the spring turkey season, and we definitely were impacted by about 50% on the spring black bear season,” Minard told The Center Square.
From June through the end of the year this part of the outdoor recreation industry had a strong rebound, he said, running at or near capacity. Families chose staycations within the state or picked Montana as a family destination.
“That would be one factor of demand, just simply due to the restrictions in Canada and Mexico, you’ve really caused people to seek the recreational opportunity, particularly out here in the American West,” Minard said.
Conventional outdoor recreation accounted for 37.4% of U.S. outdoor recreation value in 2020, an increase from 30.6% in 2019. The BEA attributed the increase to higher spending on boating/fishing and RVing.
Approximately $943 million was spent on these conventional outdoor recreation activities in Montana. Of that, $288 million was spent on boating and fishing, up from $168 million in 2019. And RVining increased to $139 million compared to $125 million in 2019.
Minard said his organization working to get COVID protocols approved so the recreation industry could operate. The association worked with the governor’s office and the Office of Outdoor Recreation to get protocols in place.
The outdoor industry began to understand things better as it moved from fishing to hunting season.
“People were absolutely clamoring for the services of an outfitter,” he said. “Where they hadn’t been booked before they were now being booked fully.”
In 2020, Montana ended up with a tremendous amount of pent-up COVID demand for outdoor recreation. That translated to $63 million in hunting, shooting and trapping, though that was approximately $6 million less than what was spent in 2019.
The applications for big-game licenses set an all-time record entering the 2021 draw, with 30 to 40% more applicants than the number of non-resident licenses that were available.
“And that created a pretty damn serious problem post-draw,” Minard said.
The industry ended up with a 40 to 50% vacancy factor because many hunters who had booked for a hunting trip didn’t get licenses, so they canceled plans to visit the state, he said. The random draw translated into a detriment to the industry because it didn’t meet demand for the state’s fourth largest economic driver.
Minard said the state had 35% more applicants than ever before. The overbooking compared to license sales would have cost the industry potential revenue if the Legislature hadn’t taken action.
He said MOGA approached the Montana Legislature for a one-time expansion of the number of licenses available.
“Mind you, we are talking about the fourth largest economic driver in the state with non-resident spending,” Minard said. “And the first three are food, fuel and lodging. And nobody comes to Montana just to drive, sleep and eat.”
The Legislature passed legislation for the one-time issue of additional licenses, which the governor signed.
“It is vital to the well-being of rural communities across the state because of the commerce it generates,” he said.
That legislation enabled the industry to get back to capacity and generated approximately $30 million in commerce, according to Minard.
More than 1,700 nonresident hunters with outfitters have purchased the newly available big game licenses as of September, the Ravalli Republic reported, adding approximately $1.6 million in new license revenue to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
“If we were able to generate that kind of commerce, put people back to work, this wasn’t a handout, this was a jobs bill,” Minard said.
He credited an astute legislature and a governor looking for creative ways to beat the COVID economic impact for making it happen by granting MOGA’s request.
“What we wanted to do was put people to work and hire people and buy tires and buy food and support, support the hotels, motels,” he said. “All this stuff like that is what the goal was, and it worked.”
The industry got out of 2020 in good condition because the final three quarters of the year went well.
“By 2021, the applications were off the charts, the application for big-game hunting, and for the fishing industry,” Minard said. “The fishing industry was absolutely slammed this year, record levels of fishermen out in the outdoors, both guided and unguided.”