Forum Relates Region’s Open Spaces to Economic Growth

By Beacon Staff

The market value of Montana’s natural splendors has traditionally hung solely on what could be mined, milled or manufactured.

But as pressure mounts to incorporate sustainable assets into the economic picture and preserve the state’s wide open landscapes for future generations to enjoy, business and community leaders are increasingly looking to buck the conventional trends and shift the focus onto the state’s wealth of natural amenities and outdoors, which create an added value to tourism, and a proven ecologic value that leads to job creation and helps build a skilled work force.

It might seem like a long shot to stake the future of Montana’s economy on its landscape and suite of alfresco activities, but business and community leaders are increasingly identifying the state’s open spaces as its bread-and-butter enterprise, and the key for continued economic growth.

Studies are quantifying the value of natural infrastructure like elk hunting, fly fishing, and mountain biking on the Treasure State’s vast parcels of protected lands, and a forum at Flathead Valley Community College on Oct. 18 lent further credence to the notion that those assets attract a “creative class of entrepreneurs, employers and employees, sparking job creation and diversifying our overall economy,” according to Chris Mehl, an economist with Headwaters Economics in Bozeman.

The forum, called “Looking Up: Business Opportunity in the Crown of the Continent,” was hosted by the National Parks Conservation Association and lured speakers like Orvis chief executive officer Perk Perkins; Kathleen Warner, chief operating officer of the Startup America Partnership; and Robert Yow, vice president for business development at Xanterra Parks and Recreation, the concessions outfit that recently took over the major lodging and dining contract at Glacier National Park.

Michael Jamison, the NPCA’s Glacier program manager, said the forum’s aim was to introduce a conversation about the direction the Crown of the Continent is headed, and whether the region’s priorities are in line with some of its greatest economic assets – clean water, access to public lands, abundant wildlife and authentic towns.

“I have a 13-year-old son, and I’d really like to think that, one day, he might be able to return home after college and find there’s a job waiting here for him. But I’d also like to think that we’d still be a community he’d want to live in, with room to roam and the clear rivers he loves to fish,” Jamison said. “Our goal with this forum is to begin a conversation about finding a balance between the extremes – a town with jobs, where our kids still want to live. It really is that simple.”

One panel, titled “Economic Opportunity and the Great Outdoors,” featured a slate of local entrepreneurs and business administrators who said their employees overwhelmingly attribute their decision to stay and work in Montana to its high quality of life.

Reed Gregerson, who helped start the software engineering firm The ZaneRay Group in Whitefish, said the skill, success, health and quality of life his workforce enjoys is integral to the company’s proximity to pristine, wide-open landscapes.

It’s also the reason he’s able to attract first-rate employees who would otherwise be gobbled up by larger markets and higher salaries.

“We use our quality of life as a competitive advantage, and we frequently win,” Gregerson said.

As places like the Flathead Valley grow, Gregerson also emphasized the importance of “taking the long view” and thinking 20 and 30 years down the road with regards to planning, preservation and the region’s economic future.

Ryan Busse of Kimber Arms, a large firearm manufacturer that bases its sales out of Kalispell, said the success of his business rests on the world-class outdoor recreation opportunities.

“Just because there isn’t an extractive activity happening doesn’t mean our company is not garnering economic activity. We’re building a successful company because we have these non-extractive resources,” Busse said. “That culture permeates our office.”

Moderator Marne Hayes asks a question of the panel during the National Parks Conservation Association’s discussion about economic opportunity and the outdoors at Flathead Valley Community College. – Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

A recent report by Headwaters Economics 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.

Marne Hayes, who founded Business for Montana’s Outdoors and moderated a panel at the forum, said the best path forward is ensuring that the value of public lands, which boost the economy and is attracting a new generation of business owners and entrepreneurs, is part of the economic discussion.

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.

Yow, of Xanterra, which recently won the bidding war for a new concessions contract at Glacier National Park after edging out longtime hospitality partner Glacier Park, Inc., summarized how the behemoth company’s forward-thinking business model incorporates a host of environmentally friendly practices for which it has been recognized by environmental achievement awards.

“We try and do everything we can to protect the environment and be forward thinking about environmental projects. We are not sitting back on our laurels, we are trying to be forward thinking about environmentally friendly projects that make a difference,” he said.

Xanterra provides a variety of visitor services in major national and state parks across the country, including Crater Lake, Death Valley, Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest, Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone and Zion National Parks, and Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

Yow said Xanterra’s companywide two-year goals include: decreasing fossil fuel usage by 30 percent; increasing use of renewable energy to provide 7 percent of the total electricity consumed; decreasing greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent; diverting 50 percent of all solid waste generated from landfills; increasing purchases of sustainable food items to account for 50 percent of companywide food expenditures; and banning disposable water bottles.

One example of the company’s innovative environmental practices is a solar cell in Death Valley, which generates 2.3 million kilowatt hours every year. Another is a steam locomotive at the Grand Canyon that is powered by cooking grease from the park’s kitchens.

“We intend to lead by example to slow climate change and use sustainable resources,” Yow said.

RELATED: Economy of Ecology

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