Research data recently released by the Institute of Tourism and Recreation Research illustrates with clarity why a program named Travelers for Open Land is a perfect fit for Montana.

Travelers for Open Land was launched in 2009 as a partnership among the Montana Lodging and Hospitality Association, Montana Association of Land Trusts and the Montana Community Foundation to help Montana and Montanans protect a key asset: open lands. Since its creation, Travelers for Open Land has raised over $50,000 through voluntary donations from visitors and residents who stay or shop at one of the over 100 participating business properties. Every dollar raised has been granted to Montana land trusts to help fund conservation easements to protect wildlife habitat, river corridors, water quality and family farms and ranches. The program has received many small donations and a few large donations from people who are glad to have an opportunity to help conserve Montana.

Montana’s bed tax funds tourism promotion, Montana history and Montana culture, but no bed tax monies are allocated specifically to conserve the basic reasons people visit Montana and why those of us who live here stay here. Montanans — and our guests — richly enjoy outdoor recreation and nature.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the ITRR 2011 Vacationer Characteristics study. Keep in mind over 10 million nonresidents visited Montana in 2010, and nearly all them came here to experience the outdoors. And it is that appreciation for the outdoors that motivates them to contribute a dollar or two to Travelers for Open Land.

The primary locations for most Montana visitors were Yellowstone and Glacier National parks, and the primary attractions for tourists in Montana were mountains/forests, open space/uncrowded areas, rivers, wildlife and lakes. The primary activities for tourists were scenic driving, wildlife watching, nature photography, day hiking and camping. Travelers for Open Land is a perfect complement to these attractions and activities.

Travelers for Open Land is a completely voluntary program that makes sense for Montana’s landscape, for Montana’s economy and for our hospitality industry. People appreciate our open spaces, appreciate our efforts to conserve those open spaces and are willing to contribute to those conservation efforts. From an economic and industry standpoint, Travelers for Open Land helps protects some of our basic products — nature, wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation — for future customers to enjoy.

Travelers for Open Land has helped fund seven different land conservation projects, from Glasgow to the Flathead and from the Gallatin area to the Bitterroot Valley.

In 2011 Travelers for Open Land is debuting new program signage and interaction between the participating business and the guest/customer to generate more awareness about the program and more revenue for private land conservation. We have implemented this new signage and guest interaction program with great success at Buck’s T-4 and in the Big Sky area. Our staff supports the program, management is fully on board and our guests are enthusiastic about the program goals and appreciative of our efforts to protect open land. They’re appreciative because we are striving to conserve something that is important to them.

Travelers for Open Land also partnered with Big Sky Resort in April 2011 for Skiers and Riders for Open Land at Big Sky, a very successful event that allowed Big Sky to promote open land protection with discounted lift ticket prices to its customer base. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Montana was also a partner in that event.

With the new signage program, new corporate partnerships and continued commitment from participating businesses and their guests and customers, we’re hopeful Travelers for Open Land will continue to grow and continue to protect Montana’s outdoor experiences.

Travelers for Open Land is the only statewide program of its kind in the country, which makes sense, because statewide, Montana is still the best place in the country.

Mike Scholz is an owner of Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky, a member of the Montana Lodging and Hospitality Association board of directors and founder of Travelers for Open Land.

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