MISSOULA — With thousands of people flocking to Montana for recreation, or to live, there's a growing local concern our "outdoor way of life" is being ruined.
A new multi-media marketing campaign aims to educate, and head off "bad behavior".
You might call it a "COVID crest". An explosion of interest in Montana's outdoors starting last year as alternatives to the lockdown life and continuing strong in '21.
It's great for the state's $7-billion outdoor recreation business but not so much for those coping with crowds on their favorite trail, or lake.
"We've heard stories about really poor behavior last year with some of these, what was potentially was thought of as, new visitors coming," said Jeremy Sage, Interim Director of the Institute for Tourism and Recreation at the University of Montana.
"They don't really have an understanding of the outdoor rec way of life, and the kind of 'treat nature well' mantra that we live by up here. And so trying to figure those out and how do we message them to all these visitors that are coming out?"
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) State Parks Communications Manager Pat Doyle says Montana wasn't alone.
And that wasn't just something that you saw in Montana. That was a nationwide thing where COVID and lockdowns in different states really forced people outside. And a lot of people are new to camping, to hiking, outdoor recreation which is great.
"I mean that's one of the reasons why these places are preserved. We will find them and have meaningful experiences outside. But with that comes a level of responsibility to enjoy these lands safely and to recreate responsibly when you're visiting," Doyle continued.
So tourism industry leaders are doing something about it, with everyone from the regional tourism offices, to Glacier National Park, FWP, and others combining efforts to tell everyone to "Recreate Responsibly".
"You know everybody being on this on the same page and all the DMOs across the state and Office of Tourism and our agency partners," explained Glacier Country Tourism, President and CEO Racene Friede. "You know when you work together you are so much more effective."
Glacier National Park spokeswoman Gina Kerzman was among those pushing for the joint approach.
“Several partners volunteered to join our efforts, including the state of Montana, as it became apparent that we were all dealing with similar issues. I’m thrilled at what resulted in an action-based, statewide initiative and the positive impact this campaign could have not only on Glacier National Park but the entire region and state.”
The Montana Office of Tourism created the toolkit of resources available to businesses statewide, and a mini-grant program for Destination Management Organizations to help integrate and produce online and print materials.
“We recognize that not all communities across Montana have access to the same resources,” says Jan Stoddard of the Montana Office of Tourism, “and yet we’re all dealing with the same issues. This grant program helps level the playing field so our smaller communities are not left behind in having the opportunity to share the Recreate Responsibly messaging.”
You've likely already heard the radio ads this summer. "Also, we must stick to public lands and never recreate on private lands. It's the little things like following campfire safety and leave no trace principles that make a big impact on keeping this extraordinary place, well, extraordinary."
Marketers are also using traditional media like billboards to get the message out to passing travelers.
"And we've got advertising, paid media, social media, signage, billboards, all directing back to a website that isn't just about telling them direct responsibly," Friede tells me. "There's actually resources there to help them understand how to do that."
Some of the tips are just common sense, at least to those who have recreated in Montana for years. But many of our visitors, and some new locals, don't know about the basics, like extinguishing campfires, and not feeding the bears; or just respecting each other's space.
Friede says it's about respecting Montana and its communities and sharing them. "We don't want people to not come. We just want people when they do come to be like us and recreate responsibly. Practice good stewardship and you know, be a part of our communities."
"Not everyone understands how to recreate responsibly, and that's not anyone's fault," Doyle noted. "It's just, you know how we have been brought up as Montanans. And so we want to share that knowledge with people that may be visiting here or maybe just moved to the state."
Sage believes it can make a difference, not just this season, but for years to come.
"We have these great spaces, but they're great because they're in outstanding shape and we want to keep it that way. So here is some of the suggestions of how to behave in these spaces and what to do, such that, yeah, they're great now and will be great 20 years from now as well.'
Sage says the UM Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research is also doing some extensive surveys this season to measure the experiences of first-time visitors to further refine what Montana can do to keep recreation running smoothly.