By Tyler Allen Explore Big Sky Senior Editor
BOZEMAN – Access to public lands is fueling growth in Montana’s economy and helping the state outperform the rest of the country, according to a Headwaters Economics report presented at the Feb. 6 Montana Haymakers Summit in Bozeman.
The summit at the Baxter Hotel – attended by more than 100 businesspeople from around the state – was organized by Business for Montana’s Outdoors and featured Headwaters’ research, panel discussions, and keynote addresses from U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and Red Ants Pants CEO Sarah Calhoun.
“Businesses that create jobs are drawn to Montana’s public lands because there’s so much to offer among them – it’s one of our top competitive advantages,” Calhoun said in the opening address. “Montana’s economy is seeing a remarkable transition thanks to the popularity of our public lands, and the countless jobs that rely on our outdoor traditions.”
Between 2001-2013, Montana’s economy created nearly 80,000 net new jobs while total personal income grew by 35 percent compared to the national average of 20 percent. Per capita income in the state increased nearly three times faster than the country as a whole.
“Montana’s per capita income gap is closing,” said Chris Mehl, Policy Director of Headwaters Economics and a Bozeman City Commissioner. “Bozeman is pretty much there.” The trend is concurrent across the West in areas with public lands.
During the last four decades, non-metropolitan counties in the West with more than 30 percent federally protected land increased jobs four times faster than non-metro counties without public lands, according to the Headwaters report.
“The top five fastest growing [Montana] counties in the last ten years have two things in common,” Mehl said. “Nearby access to high quality public lands and wide diversity of growing economic sectors.”
Gallatin County is the fastest growing county in the state, with a 28.6 percent increase in population from 2003-2012.
“People come to Montana for the outdoor activities and quality of life,” Tester said. “[They] attract new business and keep our best and brightest in the state … Nowhere [in Montana] is entrepreneurship greater than in Gallatin County.”
Tester stressed that people make more money in Montana counties that have public lands, and that these protected areas should not be turned over to the state. A former state senator, Tester said he believes those lands would eventually be sold to private interests when the legislature faces financial stresses like fighting forest fires.
“I’m very bullish on Montana,” he said. “It’s going to grow in ways we never imagined.”
Tester went on to talk about the importance of public education and infrastructure to support the growth in population, and lauded Bozeman for its trails system. He said Gallatin County has some of the best agricultural lands in the state, and houses shouldn’t replace it.
However, he did not suggest where all the future development should happen in a fast-growing agricultural county surrounded by public lands.
“We need to make a concerted effort to keep public lands in public hands,” Tester said.