You’ve heard it before and you’re going to hear it ad nauseam throughout the election season. At the Republican governors candidate forum in Whitefish earlier this week, all the candidates ripped regulators and environmental groups for holding back economic growth by suppressing resource extraction. They all want more coal and gas development to jump start Montana’s economy. Rick Hill said he would be “dealing with the legal and regulatory barriers that are holding us back” when he is governor.
In the world of reality, of course, the answers are much different. A new report by Headwaters Economics of Bozeman outlines where and how growth has occurred in Montana in the past decade. And, it’s not in extractive industries. People come to Montana for the outdoor recreation and amenities, not to get a job in a coal mine.
In the real world, Montanan’s personal income grew by 29% between 2000 and 2010. Where did that growth happen? 95% of the growth was in service -related industries with the fastest growth seen in health care, real estate, government and professional services. Montana added 4,477 net new businesses between 2000 and 2009. Those new businesses were associated with outdoor recreation, not mining and drilling.
People create economic opportunities and people are drawn to beautiful natural settings and highly livable communities; making Montana’s quality environment one of the state’s key economic assets. Protecting and enhancing Montana’s environmental amenities is essential for sustained economic growth.” Dr. Larry Swanson, The O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West
People aren’t coming to Montana for a quick Bakken buck and those that do won’t stay when the oil is gone. In ten years the oil will be sucked dry and we will be left with empty motels, leveled mountains and weed-strewn RV parks. Our mountains, valleys and endless prairie will be here to provide for us forever if we are good stewards. The Headwaters study pointed out that non-metropolitan counties with more than 30% of their lands under federal protection, increased jobs by 344% over the last decade. Those with no protected lands grew by a mere 80%.
Changing our environmental regulations to despoil more of Montana will not only ruin more of our lands, it will ruin what is best about the Montana economy. The Montana economy has outperformed the rest of the U.S. in almost every way. In the last decade, per capita income in Montana grew by 18% while the rest of the country limped along at 4%. That growth is due to the outdoor amenities we have protected, not to what we sucked and mined out of Montana. Our public lands and the infrastructure that protects those lands is much more vital to our growth than all the oil in North Dakota or coal in Wyoming and it is something we must preserve for both our personal and economic welfare and growth.