Natural Opportunities

By Beacon Staff

BUTTE – Montana’s outdoor heritage has fostered the statewide economy for more than a century, but the way in which the Treasure State’s expanse of open space contributes to its bottom line has shifted.

There’s a higher premium on the lifestyle Montana’s public lands afford than the industrial worth of their extractable resources, and business owners agree.

That was the takeaway message for attendees of the Montana Economic Development’s Sept. 16 breakout panel at Montana Tech in Butte. Called “Boosting Montana’s Economy Through the Great Outdoors,” the panel was led by a diverse ensemble of business leaders and outdoors enthusiasts, including world-renowned mountaineer Conrad Anker, who is captain of the North Face Athlete Team and lives in Bozeman.

“At North Face we’ve been part of a statewide effort to build economic development while promoting stewardship of our lands,” Anker said. “Outdoor recreation is that vehicle for Montana.”

The discussion focused on the synergy between Montana’s protected lands and key economic drivers like job growth and employee recruitment.

A recurring theme was the quality of life that employees of Montana-based businesses enjoy because of their proximity to national forests and parks, blue-ribbon trout streams, world-class skiing and sprawling networks of buffed-out mountain biking trails.

Numerous studies show that the presence of public lands boosts the economy and are attracting a new generation of business owners and entrepreneurs. Recently, a survey commissioned by Business for Montana’s Outdoors found that, of the 200 small private business owners in Montana who responded, 70 percent of them agree that the state’s outdoor access is beneficial to business. “The Montana outdoor lifestyle” topped the list of factors, outranking tax rates, access to raw materials, utility costs, quality health care, access to high speed Internet and airline service.

Young business owners and owners of growing businesses (those who are actively hiring new employees) were most likely to say that public lands were a factor in locating their businesses. The survey also found that 73 percent of business owners believed it’s possible to protect land and water and have a strong economy with good jobs, while 89 percent said national parks, forests and wildlife areas are an essential part of Montana’s economy.

According to 2012 research by the Outdoor Industry Association, Americans spend $646 billion on outdoor recreation every year. Nearly $6 billion is spent on outdoor recreation in Montana, generating $403 million in state and local tax revenue while creating nearly 65,000 jobs and $1.5 billion in wages.

“When people go outside, they are supporting the economy,” said I Ling Thompson, vice president of marketing and communications for the Boulder, Colo.-based Outdoor Industry Association.

KC Walsh, president of the Bozeman-based fishing gear company Simms, said his employees began keeping track of the number of days they spent fishing during the work day, hoping to tally more than 100 collective fishing days between July 1 and the beginning of the two-day conference in Butte.

“Companywide, we passed 1,000,” Walsh said, adding that Simms encourages employees to wet their lines on “Fishing Fridays.” “The days our employees spend on the water using our products help generate better ideas and identify shortcomings.”

Those outings also boost morale among workers and keep their ideas fresh – a trend that other panelists observed as well.

Alex Philp, president of GCS Research, a tech company in Missoula, said he’s leveraged the town’s access to outdoor recreation as a way to recruit talented employees who might otherwise accept jobs in other markets.

“It is a competitive advantage and we use it. When I’m looking for the best and brightest, I totally play it up,” Philp said. “It’s the reason I’m in Montana, and it’s the reason I never left. Public lands do contribute to the bottom line of my business.”

The metric goes beyond the anecdotal.

A recent report by the Bozeman-based research group Headwaters Economics recently showed correlation between the growth of the state’s economy and its high percentage of federally protected lands.

The report found that between 1970 and 2009 rural western counties with more than 30 percent of the land under federal protection increased jobs at a rate four times greater than rural counties with no federally protected lands. The sectors seeing the highest growth is health care, followed by real estate, government and professional, scientific and technical services.

According to Thompson, every year Americans spend $646 billion on outdoor recreation as they pay for gear and travel, generating $39.9 billion in federal tax revenue and $397 billion in state and local tax revenue, while creating 6.1 million jobs.

“My employees are not defined by the code they write,” Phil said. “They’re defined by the life they live and that leads to good ideas and it gives us creative edge. And we don’t have a business plan for that.”

Historically, success and quality of life were mutually exclusive in Montana, but that is no longer the case, he said.

“It’s no longer an either-or conversation. It is possible to have a great business and great access to outdoors,” Philp said.

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