Perhaps anyone who takes a minute to stare at the mountains, forests or rivers understands the natural amenities Montanans enjoy have a value with no discernable price tag. While the intangible values may remain in the memories of family hunting camps or river floats, recent studies continue to show that our natural backdrop makes for a significant economic impact as well.

Natural resource managers recently released economic numbers for some of the Helena area’s most visible natural resources: the Helena and Lewis and Clark national forests and the Missouri River. While those amenities contribute beyond the scope of the studies, the reports show the public land and water driving nearly $120 million annually.

In 2014, preliminary numbers showed 11 million tourists visited Montana, spending nearly $4 billion. The vast majority of promotional materials showcase the state’s wild places, said Dan Iverson with the Montana office of tourism.

“We have a brand platform that’s about spectacular unspoiled nature, which we have more of than any other area in the lower 48,” he said. “It’s one of the advantages we have, and advertising is absolutely driven through landscape photographs and in the paid media it’s mostly about nature.”

Helena and Lewis and Clark national forests

The Helena and Lewis and Clark national forests are preparing a new joint forest plan including economic reports for their 2.5 million acres. While still in the draft stage, the report states that forest management for a 13-county area contributes 1,833 jobs and $63.1 million in labor income. With two of Montana’s biggest cities and urban economies in Great Falls and Helena included in the study area, the forest directly contributed to 1.3 percent of economic totals.

To place those figures into perspective, the forests’ average $23 million annual budget brings an impressive rate of return, said Helena and Lewis and Clark Forests’ Supervisor Bill Avey.

“That’s an investment being made by all of the taxpayers of the U.S. coming right back into the counties and that really stood out to me,” he said.

Forest management had the most impact in terms of private employment on ranching, with 16 percent using grazing leases to support their industry. When it came to labor income, forest products manufacturing had the biggest impact of 12 percent attributed to national forest management. Lodging and food accounted for about 5 percent of all labor income and jobs driven by forested management.

Government employment related to forest management had by far the highest data, with 2,042 jobs accounting for $30.5 million annually.

Logging and recreation

When it comes to the total economy for the 13-county area, the report showed that in 2012 lodging and food accounted for $162.4 million or 2.9 percent while logging was $4.4 million or 0.1 percent. Shifts in priorities of the public and technological advancements in the timber industry have seen more labor growth in recreation, Avey said.

“I think people value the amenity landscapes more, not that they value the products from timber less, but there’s more people wanting to live and work based on a landscape they want to see,” he said. “The timber industry itself has changed significantly — it’s much more mechanized and uses fewer sawyers. Mills are more automated now like in many other industries.”

Despite a downturn in recent years with timber industry earnings and labor, the Forest Service recognizes that it must increase forest restoration work to keep up with resource needs, he said. Logging will be a part of that effort with continuing and proposed projects, he added.

Timber production and recreation can co-exist, Avey said, understanding that temporary closures during logging will benefit recreation in the long term.

What may be holding back more recreation potential is a plateau of Forest Service personnel to manage and coordinate partner organizations that help create and maintain recreation opportunities, he said.

“We have fantastic partners, great volunteer groups, but we’re at a point right now where we’re maxed out in terms of taking on more volunteers,” Avey said. “Our issue right now is generating more internal capacity to generate that volunteer help.”

While thankful for volunteer partnerships, in many cases staff or skilled contractors must perform forestry work because of safety, he said.

Missouri River

FWP long estimated economic data for hunters and anglers based on 1980s surveys adjusted for inflation. Analysts knew numbers were likely low, and late last year completed new angler surveys by mailing questionnaires to license holders. Questions included average costs per day for equipment, fuel, lodging and guide fees, in addition to days spent on the water or in the field.

“We were looking for more contemporary figures with the thought that our baseline data was almost 30 years old and there’ve been changes to the types of goods they purchase,” said Mike Lewis, FWP Human Dimensions Unit supervisor.

Based on average spending per day and known angler days, managers have a tool to estimate economic impacts. With daily estimates of $83.40 for resident and $646.23 for nonresident anglers on rivers and streams, 2013’s record setting 170,850 angler days on the Missouri River brought in a total of more than $54 million.

“I wasn’t surprised because I knew our (per day) numbers were probably low and there had been some changes, but I was surprised by the total angler days,” Lewis said.

Use of the Missouri River has shifted toward more nonresidents as well. In the 1990s, nonresidents never accounted for more than 25 percent of Missouri River anglers. Since 2011, they represent more than 40 percent of lines in the water.

“Nonresidents absolutely spend more than resident anglers with higher expenditures to get to the state and then higher costs once they get to our state,” Lewis said.

What’s it really worth?

The economic impact of the Missouri River clearly goes far beyond the angling industry. Dams on the river generate power for thousands of homes, irrigation fuels area agriculture and real estate prices jump whenever water is a factor.

Headwaters Economics, with offices in Helena and Bozeman, released a report in February detailing the impacts of public lands for economic growth. While the latest report focuses specifically on public lands, access to waters have much the same impacts looking at outdoor recreation as a whole, said Chris Mehl, Headwaters policy director.

Among the Headwaters report’s findings is that population growth follows the ability to access public lands. Montana counties with high proportions of federal lands have grown in population while many of those with low proportions dropped.

Across the West, counties without big cities saw an income link to protected federal lands, according to the report. In 2010, per capita income was $436 higher per 10,000 acres of protected federal land within a county, the report said.

What the report shows is that waters, public lands and protected federal lands play an important role in today’s economy, Mehl said. Companies are able to use Montana’s outdoor amenities as selling points to perspective businesses and workers, and retirees with higher investment incomes are also choosing places with rivers and mountains to live, he added.

Even more difficult to measure are “existence values,” or the value people place on natural amenities simply because they exist, Mehl said. That also leads to “bequest values,” or the value of passing lands on to the next generation. Cultural and scientific values make up additional pieces even more difficult to quantify, he said.

“The Forest Service is most likely underestimating its impact; mostly, in fairness, because some economic values are much easier to measure while others are more difficult to quantify,” he said. “This brings up the second point, what was left out? It’s hard to quantify the quality of life afforded by the presence of the Helena and Lewis and Clark national forests and how these public lands may attract people and businesses to nearby communities.”