The recent announcement that Western Montana has been selected as a federally designated technology hub is great news for our state. Our new tech hub status will lead to millions in research and development investments, particularly in photonics technology that has wide-ranging uses in self-driving vehicles and agricultural equipment, as well as national defense and natural disaster response.
For those who don’t know, Montana already has 40 photonics tech companies employing over 1,000 people with high wages. Early projections are that the tech hub could expand that number to 5,000.
The benefits of Montana’s tech hub are expected to be spread throughout the western side of the state, including Kalispell, Missoula, Butte, and Bozeman. The University of Montana, Montana State University, and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai College all have plans to train Montanans for employment in this emerging sector. Talk about an opportunity for young Montanans to build a career here instead of having to leave the state to find a good job.
Beyond the immediate economic development and employment benefits, the tech hub also comes with potentially much bigger implications, including some that may involve the state Legislature.
The fact that Montana is open for business for emerging technology industries like photonics has been a conscious policy decision promoted by Montana conservatives. We’ve consistently cut income and business equipment taxes, simplified our tax code, and cut bureaucratic red tape to attract industries with higher wage positions. Contrast that new approach with recent past Democratic administrations that emphasized low wage, seasonal tourism jobs while taxing, spending, and regulating our natural resources industries nearly out of existence.
Natural resources is the second big implication of this tech hub announcement. Nancy Schlepp, the chair of the Montana Chamber of Commerce, said it best in a recent news story: “This sets the stage for Montana to lead innovation efforts into the future, requiring significant and sustainable growth in the mining industry. Critical materials and rare earth minerals in our region are key to securing our supply chain and producing photonic sensing systems.”
Rare earth elements are essential to modern technology. Not just photonics, but also vehicles, clean energy generation and storage, computers, national defense technologies, and more. As of 2022, China controls 63% of the world’s rare earth mining and 85% of rare earth processing. If we want the United States to be economically and militarily competitive with China in the future, we must produce and refine more rare earth minerals outside of China’s control. That’s where Montana comes in.
The Sheep Creek rare earth deposit, just south of where I live in the Bitterroot Valley, has the potential to be the richest source of these minerals in the country. Research is also underway looking at extracting these elements from the Berkeley Pit in Butte.
Montana can lead the way not just on photonics technology, but also on producing the raw materials that are necessary to build technology. We can help our nation out-compete China by mining without the environmental and human rights catastrophes that China creates.
Overzealous regulators, radical environmentalists, and liberal activist judges have historically been the barrier to natural resource production in the Treasure State. We’ll see what the future holds, as Montana’s new tech hub status and our wealth of natural resources go hand in hand.
Senator Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, is the President of the Montana Senate.
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