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The Hazards of Rear-View Mirror Economics

Back in the 1980s when I first moved to Livingston, Montana if you were to ask locals what drove the economy of Park County, most residents looking in a rear-view mirror of the county’s economy would have answered mining, logging, ranching and farming.

Yet an economic analysis done in the late 1980s showed that all these industries combined contributed to no more than 5 percent of the personal income in the county. By contrast, more than 40 percent of the county’s income at that time came from outside of the county via transfer payments such as pensions, investments outside of the county and other income streams.

Since the 1980s the economy of Park County and Montana has diversified and is even more heavily dependent on the preservation of its wildlands and outdoor opportunities. “Footloose” entrepreneurs who can live anywhere, and a growing legion of retirees moving from other place are increasingly attracted to the state due to the proximity of wild lands and intact functioning landscapes.

According to a recent study by the Outdoor Industry Association, outdoor recreation is the largest sector in Montana’s economy supporting 70,000 jobs. By comparison, the Economic Profile System listed 3,543 Montana timber jobs in the state. These included 720 in “forestry, logging and support,” 2,159 in milling (sawmills, plywood, etc.) and 664 in other wood products manufacturing. The total 3,543 jobs in “timber” were 0.94 percent of total private employment in Montana in 2015.

Yet despite this obvious limited and declining economic value of natural resource extraction industries, the Montana congressional delegation still favors the “old” industries like timber, ranching and mining over protection of wild lands and wildlife in legislation and policies.

Wild lands are central to Montana’s outdoor recreation, and the attractiveness of state’s communities for people with transferable incomes. These wilderness lands provide clean water for trout streams, habitat for elk, bighorn, wolverine and lynx, and the beautiful scenery that graces the state’s landscape.

Unfortunately, Montana’s delegation seems to be looking in a rear-view mirror regarding Montana’s economy. A few examples make this point.

Congressman Greg Gianforte is unwilling to publicly oppose gold mining in Paradise Valley south of Livingston adjacent to the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.

Both Gianforte and Sen. Steve Daines support the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017 introduced in the House, as well as similar legislation in the Senate.

These bills are Trojan horses with innocuous-sounding names that would circumvent environmental laws, limit citizen oversight and provide greater taxpayer subsidies to the timber industry.

Daines opposes closing the Sheep Experiment Station in the Centennial Mountains even though it negatively impacts grizzlies and the potential reintroduction of bighorn sheep.

Montana’s forests are not the nation’s woodbox or feedlot. But our forests are critical to the new economy that is focused on quality of life attributes that includes scenic beauty, healthy rivers and abundant wildlife.

It’s time to stop looking in the rear-view mirror.

More articles by:

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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