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Crown of the Economy

I’ve been meaning to get around to this for a while now, but sometimes it’s just hard to jump off the legislative crazy train. There is a recent research paper by Headwaters Economics of Bozeman examining the economic effects of climate change on the Crown of the Continent region. The report focuses mainly on effects felt by the downhill skiing and recreational fishing economy in the region and analyzes numerous sources of economic data.

Both industries are important components of the Crown economy and both are dependent on a stable snowpack and consistent precipitation patterns. Both of those are changing due to our warming climate. We have begun to see a reduction in overall snowpack, more of our precipitation coming later in the season as rain and the snowpack is melting earlier in the spring. We are seeing lower late summer streamflows and more erratic storm events. All of these trends impact the skiing and fishing economies.

In recent years, the economy of the Crown of the Continent region has become more dependent on the amenities offered by our largely pristine environment. The majority of the jobs and nearly all the population growth in the region over the last 30 years are closely tied to wildland amenities. We have moved away from an economy based on farming, ranching, mining and forest products and toward more service-oriented jobs connected to our protected lands. In 2008, only 4% of jobs in the region were in timber and mining. Agriculture in the region now provides less than 3% of all jobs. Service-related jobs grew by 209% from 1970 to 2000 while government employment saw a 77% increase. Most new jobs are tied to the recreational opportunities offered by the region.

Many professionals are now able to pursue their jobs from anywhere they choose and more and more they are choosing areas that offer exceptional outdoor recreational opportunity such as the Crown region. As we move away from an extractive economy toward one that is more amenities-based, it is more and more important that we protect and enhance the outdoor opportunities that are bringing jobs to our region.

“According to one estimate, recreational fishing alone created 4,556 jobs and $23.6 million in state and local taxes in Montana in 2006.”

The Headwaters report makes several common sense conclusions and recommendations.

Resident-spending on  recreation, however, stimulates the majority (62%) of the economic output in the region, reinforcing  an important point this report makes: recreation is a key reason why people live in the Crown  region.

Restoring and maintaining the Crown’s unique fish and pristine fishing experiences will be central  to the future contributions of the fishing industry. The decline of bull and cutthroat trout in the  Flathead drainage contributed to a significant decrease in fishing, and the emergent lake trout  fishery on Flathead Lake did not make up for the lost angler days.

Within the Crown of the Continent region, the Flathead is fortunate to have one of the most intact and near-pristine watersheds left in the lower 48. Protection of that resource is worth far more to the Montana and regional economy than any amount of mineral, timber or agricultural harvest could ever hope to achieve.

As we debate in northwest Montana the best way to save declining populations of native fish in the Flathead watershed, this new report makes some interesting recommendations. We now have a fishery in Flathead Lake based on invasive and hybrid fish species that can only be angled for by a few fishermen using expensive fishing methods. Fishing pressure on the lake has steadily declined since the demise of the popular kokanee fishery. The larger lake trout in Flathead contain high levels of mercury, PCBs and heavy metals making them toxic to consumers. Native cutthroat and bull trout populations continue to decline due to competition and predation by lake trout.

The Headwaters report notes that the fishery we used to have, based on native fish and kokanee, was extremely popular with anglers and contributed far more to the local economy than a small lake trout fishery ever could. Along with protecting and restoring stream habitat within the Crown, to which we have already dedicated millions of dollars, one of the best things we can do for the economy is to make an attempt to restore that unique fishery based on native species.

Restoring the native fish presents a tremendous economic opportunity for the Crown; if successful, the region will offer a unique fishing opportunity that will draw anglers in greater numbers than the existing lake trout fishery. If angling trends on the Middle Fork Flathead indicate the popularity of catching native fish, angler numbers could reach more than double what they are today.

As our legislators in Helena debate ways to increase jobs and boost profits for declining extractive industries, the Montana economy is changing beneath their feet. Our aging legislature needs to recognize that people no longer move to Montana, or stay here, for high-paying jobs in mining and timber. They are living here because of the outdoor recreational opportunities and natural amenities afforded by our state. Far more economic benefit will accrue from a focus on improving our natural environment than from the current emphasis on finding ways to deregulate extractive industries and allow incremental increases in the use of more polluting technologies. The economic “Treasure” in our Treasure State no longer lays in what we can remove from our natural environment but in finding ways to enhance and promote enjoyment of our natural treasures.

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4 Responses

  1. It’s interesting how such trivial contributors to economies seem to get so much attention. Flathead lake is under fire from a lot of different angles and has suffered poor fisheries management for years. Continuing with Lake Trout welfare is just another chapter in the long story.

    I hate to say because with every legislative session you hope to get some good laws coming out of it- 2011 is one that we will be lucky to get out of without getting set back a couple hundred years on every front.

    Montana has a lot more to offer than stumps and holes in the ground. Good article!

    • Thanks Wayne. I agree, but I think the report points out that while recreational opportunities such as skiing and fishing may not generate major revenue alone, they are major drivers of the economy in that they are the reason that folks decide to move their businesses and their families to the Treasure State. The indirect effect of our outdoor amenities can’t really be measured, but they are a huge part of the reason that the Montana economy took less of a hit from the recession than industrial states. That may not be the case if anglers have to drive by a huge open-pit mine to get to a polluted Rock Creek or after we start blowing the tops off of mountains along the Tongue River.

  2. Great article. I hope more people get the chance to read it.

    • Thanks Joe. You guys face many of the same issues in SW Montana that we do up here.

      btw, y’all should check out Joe’s site at bigskyanglers.com if you are headed down to the W. Yellowstone area. Great place to check out fishing conditions, weather and patterns before you make the long trek.

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