Study finds public lands along Front is driver of growth

A new report by a Bozeman-based economic analysis firm says that communities along the Rocky Mountain Front have seen slow, steady growth with per-capita income and average earnings per job being 10 to 15 percent greater than elsewhere in Montana.

The research paper by Headwaters Economics — which was commissioned by the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front — also says future income and job growth can be experienced if residents and businesses take steps to preserve their natural resources.

Chris Mehl, policy director for Headwaters, said that with telecommuting capabilities, many people can live just about anywhere they like, and many of those are flocking to areas where public lands create wide, open spaces. He added that as the baby boomers age, more and more are retiring to Western states.

“We’re seeing people making location decisions based on the quality of life as well as on jobs,” Mehl said. “We found that higher protection of lands means greater populations and jobs.”

The study looked at the 100-mile stretch of land along the east side of the Continental Divide that includes Lewis and Clark, Teton and Cascade counties. Using information from the U.S. Department of Commerce and Department of Labor, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the nonprofit group analyzed the impact of the Rocky Mountain Front to small communities in the area.

Among the findings:

-- Average earnings per job along the Front rose from $38,770 in 2000 to $44,527 in 2010, which is a 15 percent increase. That compares to statewide average earnings of $34,842 in 2000 to $38,690 in 2010.

-- From 1970 to 2010, employment along the Front grew from 57,260 jobs to 100,203 jobs, a 75 percent increase.

-- Service industries have been the primary driver of employment growth. Those include health care, social assistance, professional and technical services, finance and insurance.

-- Agriculture remains the Front’s predominant use, with 4,678 farm and ranch jobs in the three counties.

-- Travel, tourism and recreation play a significant role in the area’s economy, with 10,622 private wage and salary jobs in 2009 along the Front.

-- Despite economic difficulties nationwide, expenditures by bird and big game hunters remained fairly steady in the past five years along the Front at around $10 million annually. Montana residents contribute about half of that, with out-of-state hunters making up the rest.

The report goes on to note that the proposed Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act would have a beneficial economic impact by helping to preserve the hunting, tourism and recreation sectors. Created by hunters, ranchers, conservationists and business owners along the Front, the Act would designate 67,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service land as wilderness areas.

The legislation also would designate 208,112 acres of Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management properties as a Conservation Management Area, which is similar to wilderness areas but allow mountain biking, chainsaws and roads, among other items, and require the Forest Service and the BLM to prioritize noxious weed management on about 405,000 acres of public lands.

Critics are concerned it will limit grazing as well as access along the Front, and say that it just adds additional governmental oversight.

But Lewis and Clark Commissioner Derek Brown, who supports the legislation, said that as it was being developed they listened to people’s concerns and tried to address them.

“You will never please everybody, but at meetings in Choteau it was about four-to-one in favor of the Heritage Act,” Brown said.

Mehl adds that it will only preserve what is currently on the landscape.

“Without the Bob (Marshall) and Scapegoat wilderness areas, Lincoln and the Front wouldn’t be what they are today,” Mehl said. “It’s not changing anything and that’s a big, critical part.”

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