Time for KOA to step up in Montana

The deck on KOA’s new headquarters provides an unobstructed view of the smoke-filled skies to the north.

An early heatwave and an unusually dry spring in Alberta and eastern British Columbia have resulted in more than a hundred wildfires in the past week, incinerating more than a million acres amid predictions that firefighting efforts—made more difficult by the province’s extensive peat deposits—will drag on through the summer. Smoke from the conflagrations has been flowing south into the United States, prompting air quality alerts for all of Montana as well as parts of Idaho, Colorado and Arizona. Overwhelmed Canadian authorities already have requested additional manpower and firefighting equipment from the U.S., New Zealand, Mexico and South Africa.

These fires, in other words, are a big deal—but not big enough to deter Montana’s lawmakers from passing one of the most aggressive anti-climate laws in the nation. Even as their northern neighbors were being evacuated by the thousands, the legislative captains of the self-styled Treasure State rushed to protect their mineral wealth by prohibiting state regulators from considering greenhouse gas emissions and climate effects when assessing the environmental impact of large projects, such as coal mines and power plants. But when asked in floor debate if he believes that humans are causing climate change, bill sponsor Rep. Josh Kassmier replied, “I’m not a scientist, so I’m not going to answer that.”

That’s like the captain of the Titanic, asked if he thinks steel is stronger than ice, replying, “I’m not a metallurgist—whadd’ya say we put it to the test?”

Scientists, of course, are in all-but-universal agreement that human-generated pollution, as from coal mines and power plants, is gradually but fatefully increasing the earth’s temperature, contributing not just to the current conflagrations but to ever more extreme weather swings overall. A 2022 poll by Colorado College found that nearly 60% of Montanans agree and want meaningful action taken to address the climate change issue; of more than a thousand comments submitted in response to Kassmier’s bill, a whopping 95% opposed it. Indeed, Montana’s own 2015 climate assessment found that the state’s annual temperature had increased between 2 and 3 degrees Fahrenheit since 1950—with winter and spring temperatures rising upwards of 3.9 degrees.

All that, however, has not deterred Republican lawmakers (sorry, yes, this unfortunately has become a partisan issue) from pushing back against any perceived threat to Montana’s prodigious oil, coal and gas industries. The eastern end of the state is underlain by part of the Bakken formation, a massive oil and gas field; its mountains contain the largest recoverable coal reserves in the nation, and half of the state’s electricity is generated by coal-fired plants. Big Sky Country may have to rebrand itself as the Land of Tiny Particulates, but at least its fossil fuel interests can continue to prosper without undue interference.

That much is understandable, if deplorable. What’s not understandable is the continued silence from the state’s many recreation companies that proudly proclaim their devotion to all things outdoorsy—and they’re a huge chunk of the landscape. Indeed, Montana likes to boast that its outdoor recreation economy is the nation’s second largest, accounting for 5.1% of the state’s gross domestic product. Ten percent of Montana’s jobs are in the outdoor sector, atttacting almost $4 billion a year in spending by out-of-state visitors. Yet even as the natural beauty that pulls in all those hunters, fishing enthusiasts, backpackers, campers and hikers is steadily eroded, the outdoor recreation industry resolutely refuses to connect the dots.

Among the most conspicuous avatars of this head-in-the-sand attitude has been KOA, the company that advertises itself as “the world’s largest system of privately-owned campgrounds” but which generally eschews any of the political muscle-flexing this might enable. Big on market research and on narrowly targeted speechifying before RV industry organizations, KOA takes a markedly lower profile on other stages and clings to an aw-shucks corporate persona that extols its origins as a provider of roadside camping for the traveling masses. A lobbying powerhouse it is not. Nor, apparently, does it maintain much of a presence in the Montana outdoor recreation fraternity, much less seek out a leadership position. This is a go-it-alone company that avoids entangling alliances.

But KOA also has been around for 60 years, and that means something, too. It’s marking the milestone with a new headquarters building on the west end of town; its cantilevered deck should provide an awesome view of the darkening skies to the north. Perhaps more significantly, KOA also has announced creation of the Kampgrounds of America Foundation, an effort to increase its “already robust philanthropic efforts” by “serving as the charitable embodiment of the brand’s mission of connecting people to the outdoors and each other.”

And how will that be accomplished? According to KOA, by focusing on three primary categories, the first being “accessibility to the outdoors”—which, indeed, is where virtually all of KOA’s research, marketing and advocacy have been focused to date. The foundation’s second primary category, however, is the “preservation and sustainability of the outdoors,” possibly signaling an overdue glimmer of understanding that there’s not much point in making the outdoors more accessible if the outdoors becomes a wasteland. But it’s the third primary category—“community initiatives where KOA campgrounds are and employees live”—that could be a game changer. Could be. Were KOA to take it to heart.

Helena, the state capitol, is just a four-drive from KOA headquarters in Billings, which in that part of the world makes them neighbors. There are 16 KOA campgrounds in the state, including one each in Billings and Helena. A community initiative to advance the preservation and sustainability of the outdoors could readily include a friendly visit to Rep. Josh Kassmier and his colleagues, there to explain that you don’t have to be a scientist to know when your house is burning down. That there’s more to the Montana economy than mining and drilling, neither of which have a long shelf life at this point. That the future lies in cherishing an irreplaceable natural landscape, not in tearing it down.

And maybe KOA, peering at the darkening skies from its new corporate perch, will finally understand that the next step in its corporate maturation is to advocate on behalf of the outdoors just as ardently—no, more!—as it has been marketing it.

Maybe. Sixty years is a long time, but it’s never too late to grow up.

Author: Andy Zipser

A former newspaper reporter who worked at a variety of newspapers, from small community weeklies to The Wall Street Journal, I finished my "normal" work life as the editor of The Guild Reporter, official publication of the union representing newspaper workers. On retiring, I and my wife bought a campground in the Shenandoah Valley and--with the help of our two daughters and their husbands--operated it for eight years, first as a KOA franchisee and then as an independent family-owned RV park. We sold the campground in May, 2021, and live in Staunton, Virginia, a short walk from our grandsons' home.

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