Economy of Ecology

By Beacon Staff

WHITEFISH – A single traffic light stands between Reed Gregerson’s software engineering firm in downtown Whitefish and the powder caches and single-track trails of Big Mountain a few miles away.

Inside the plush office buildings of The ZaneRay Group, commuter bikes lean propped against the workstations of thirty-something tech and software mavens decked out in earth-toned Patagonia attire – the high-end outdoor clothing manufacturer is one of the company’s clients – and the building’s vertical windows look out onto the Flathead National Forest.

On the sidewalk outside, the broad snow-marbled mountain-scape of the Whitefish Range catches the morning light and, a block away, the Whitefish River begins its journey toward the confluence with the Stillwater River.

Wearing blonde, collar-length hair and with a cappuccino at hand, Gregerson is fit and compact from a lifetime of cycling, a regimen he sustains by pedaling to work each day from his home built on acreage in Kila, and by competing in races on weekends. Holding court in a spacious, glass-walled conference room, he explains that the skill, success, health and quality of life his workforce enjoys correspond directly to ZaneRay’s proximity to pristine, wide-open landscapes.

If the snow is deep, the sun bright or the stoneflies hatching, his staff of 22 hold the freedom to pursue any number of activities available immediately outside the confines of the office – world-class skiing, fly fishing, paddling, cycling, and hiking are all a stone’s throw away.

That work-life balance and sense of place, says Gregerson, is the key to success.

Last year, Outside Magazine ranked the Internet development and design firm No. 10 on its list of the 30 “Best Places to Work,” attributing the company’s achievements to the quality of life of its employees and the open spaces that surround them.

“That endorsement wouldn’t have happened if we had been in San Jose, California,” Gregerson said. “To us the economic benefit of our quality of life is immediate and obvious. Every week we get resumes from great, talented people. That would not happen if we were in a place like Scottsdale, Arizona.”

Where the state’s rangelands were once sought after primarily for their industrial worth – as parcels to be farmed, mined or logged – there is now a higher premium on the lifestyle they afford, which is helping Western Montana compete in job sectors like health care, real estate and technology.

A recent report by Headwaters Economics, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, found that Western rural counties with more than 30 percent of their land safeguarded as national parks, federal wilderness, or national forests collectively increased job creation by 345 percent over the past 40 years, a rate four times greater than rural counties with no federally protected lands, which increased employment by 83 percent.

“We have traditionally talked about open space and its economic value in terms of tourism, but this adds another value to it, an ecologic value,” Gregerson said. “I am not saying that we should control development because I like to hug trees. I am saying it because it is good for business. My income is a direct derivative of the community and the beauty that surrounds me.”

The report also found that between 2000 and 2010, Montana’s population grew by 10 percent, employment grew by 12 percent, per capita income by 18 percent and real personal income by 29 percent. The growth was driven by higher quality jobs and a rapid growth of investment and retirement income, according to Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters.

“Across the West, there is a strong relationship between the presence of protected lands and economic growth and the growth of per capita income,” Rasker said.

Economists like Rasker attribute the growth to the state’s wealth of natural amenities, dubbing it the “amenity migration,” and entrepreneurs are leveraging the landscape to draw a skilled work force to far-flung regions.

Sitting in a conference room in Whitefish, Reed Gregerson, president of The ZaneRay Group, talks about the quality of life in the Flathead Valley being an asset in terms of bringing businesses and highly skilled workers to the area. – Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

“I saw it happen before my very eyes,” said Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., who served as vice president of customer service at RightNowTechnologies, a cloud-based software company in Bozeman. “We literally had our buildings set around a trout pond. We were a half-hour from the ski mountain, a bike ride to the trail system. And we were a world-class global company with 17 offices around the world, including Tokyo. With 1,000 employees, we were the largest commercial employer in Bozeman.”

Because of its sophisticated technological infrastructure and early access to broadband and wireless Internet, Bozeman was a pioneer of the footloose economy, ushering in entrepreneurs, investors and employees drawn to the natural infrastructure and eager to “work where they want to play,” said Daines, who printed that motto in ads and on billboards to attract a highly-trained workforce of software engineers, hailing from both in and out of the Montana market.

In March 2012, Oracle Corporation purchased RightNowTechnologies, but the URL for its website remains the same: ILoveItHere.com

“What we did in Bozeman is an example of what is possible in Montana, where we can build world class global companies that are headquartered right here,” Daines said. “When I was growing up it was more challenging, but technology has removed geography as a constraint. Because of technology, our geography becomes a competitive advantage to build great companies.”

The trend hasn’t eluded the Flathead Valley. As new technologies and global economic shifts allow employers, employees and entrepreneurs to lay down roots, and quality of life is as relevant as broadband networks and six-figure salaries, the Crown of the Continent, which encompasses 18 million acres of alpine mountains, forests and rivers, has drawn a steady stream of professionals in search of wild places as well as long-term careers.

In Flathead County, $8,600 of the per capita income, which amounts to 24 percent of total average per capita income ($35,546), can be explained by the presence of 1,318,275 acres of protected public lands, according to the Headwaters report. On average, western non-metro counties have a per capita income that is $436 higher for every 10,000 acres of protected public lands within their boundaries, the report found.

“We call it the location lottery,” said Diane Smith, the author of TheNewRural.Com, a book that describes how technology has enabled the entrepreneurial spirit in rural areas. “If you have won the location lottery that is a great start, but these days it is not everything. You have to be beautiful and smart, too. You have to have broadband capabilities to build off your environment.”

Smith also helped found Avail Media, a Kalispell-based tech enterprise that has since merged with TVN and turned into a major global digital services company.

“Everybody told us that we couldn’t build a tech company of that scope in Northwest Montana,” Smith said. “Well, surprise. Entrepreneurs are sprouting like spring flowers in our very own backyard. We are seeing start-ups everywhere, in very unlikely places.”

Tech companies have cropped up in droves from Kalispell to Columbia Falls, and their access to technology is key, Smith said. That’s why she founded American Rural, whose mission is to secure funding to provide broadband and technical infrastructure to small communities, and encourage them to foster microbusinesses.

“At American Rural we are trying to shine a light on our potential and existing success. We are not stuck in the dark ages,” she said. “Because of technology, we have access to all the mechanical pieces.”

Last month, a clutch of Western Montana business leaders set out for Washington, D.C., to meet with U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and discuss the economic value of conservation.

Among the group was John Frandsen, one of the owners and founders of Old Town Creative, a website and software development company based in Whitefish, which specializes in showcasing travel destinations through interactive online mapping.

Frandsen is also a member of Business for Montana’s Outdoors, a growing affiliation of in-state businesses working to promote the notion that protected and public lands are a clear selling point for businesses looking to move to Montana.

“We think of our natural resources primarily for the extractive values, but we believe that equal ground should be given to the ecologic value of our natural surroundings and how that directly relates to the creation of economic development and jobs,” Frandsen said. “One of our competitive assets is our natural landscape. But there is a disconnect sometimes between how much we pay attention to that and consider that in our policy decisions. It is a very real economic driver.”

The idea that protected lands are helping build Montana’s economy at a rate surpassing natural resource extraction is at odds with the state’s traditional cultural identity, but advocates of the growing movement, as well as policymakers, say it’s possible – and necessary – to balance the old-world economy with the new.

The 2012 Outside Magazine in which The ZaneRay Group was named one of the 30 best places to work in the country is seen on the wall of the company in Whitefish. – Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

In the public sphere, Daines has advocated the two-pronged philosophy of balancing natural resource extraction and energy development with environmental protection. Earlier this month, the philosophy was evinced by legislation he introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives, called the North Fork Watershed Protection Act, which would block mining and energy development in the North Fork Flathead River drainage on the western boundary of Glacier National Park.

“I am concerned that the debate is too often driven by extremes,” Daines said. “There are those who want to shut down the natural resource industry in Montana and turn the state into one big national park. And then there are those who don’t want to embrace conservation and support irresponsible development. Montanans want a balance and I really believe there is a path forward that allows us to embrace both.”

Tester, working alongside U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, introduced similar legislation to protect the North Fork watershed in the senate, and said his recent meeting with the coalition of Montana businesses is proof that public lands are driving the economy.

“As business leaders and entrepreneurs from around the country look at our public lands and decide to move their businesses to Montana, we have to continue to make investments to preserve clean air and water and to increase access to our public lands,” Tester said.

Marne Hayes, who founded Business for Montana’s Outdoors, said the best path forward is ensuring that the value of open spaces is part of the economic discussion.

“We are beginning to dispel the thinking that you can either talk about conservation or you can talk about economic development, but you can’t talk about both because they are mutually exclusive. You can either have one or the other,” she said. “But we are seeing that in many ways they work together and leverage each other to improve the economy.”

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