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WHITEFISH – For more than a century, Montana’s wide open spaces have driven the statewide economy, but the value of the land is shifting from an extractive resource to a geographic grail.

Or so says a diverse panel of business leaders assembled by a Bozeman-based research group, Headwaters Economics, which recently released a report correlating the growth of the state’s economy with its high percentage of federally protected lands.

Where the state’s rangelands were once sought after primarily for their industrial worth – as parcels to be farmed, mined or logged – there is now a higher premium on the lifestyle they afford, which is helping Montana compete in job sectors like health care, real estate and technology.

“More and more frequently, the research is showing that there is an amenity migration,” said Chris Mehl, policy director at Headwaters Economics. “If someone can leave work and be at a trout stream in 10 minutes, that is a big attraction, and public lands really play into the quality of life of a given place.”

The report found that between 1970 and 2009 rural western counties with more than 30 percent of the land under federal protection increased jobs at a rate four times greater than rural counties with no federally protected lands. The sectors seeing the highest growth is health care, followed by real estate, government and professional, scientific and technical services.

Mehl said Montana has also shown that it offers good access to competitive markets where people find they can work at a high level while enjoying other assets, like lower crime and less traffic.

“By protecting public lands and multi-use areas we have shown that through preservation we are actually building the economy,” Mehl said.

The Bozeman-based nonprofit presented its findings at a forum last week in Helena, and invited a handful of Montana business leaders from around the state. Panelists included Reed Gregerson from the Zane Ray Group in Whitefish, and K.C. Walsh of Simms Fishing Products in Bozeman. They agreed that their businesses thrive because of the unique lifestyle amenities that Montana features.

“Our company benefits enormously from where we live,” said Gregerson, president of the Zane Ray Group, a software development and web design company in Whitefish. “As a boot-strap software development company in Whitefish, we don’t have a lot of money to burn like our competitors. We are not venture or publicly funded, so we can’t compete with salaries in places like Portland or Seattle. But what we do have is Montana. If you go to the Zane Ray web site, you won’t see a bunch of dry job descriptions. We talk first about how we live in a place where you can leave work and within 15 minutes be fishing, skiing, and mountain biking, and there is a lot of open space and no traffic.”

Gregerson said “leveraging Montana’s brand” has helped Zane Ray recruit and retain big talent.

“You don’t see the same turnover that you might in a larger market, where people update their resumes every two years for a bigger salary,” he said. “There is a relationship between our natural assets and our economic growth. There is a value on a standing tree versus a tree that’s been logged and milled.”

Between 2000 and 2010, Mehl said Montana’s population grew by 10 percent while adding new jobs and real personal income at more than twice the national rate, and real per-capita income at more than four times the national rate. In that decade, Montana’s economy created 73,732 new jobs, with 95 percent of the growth coming from service-related industries.

“So not only are counties with a higher percentage of federally protected lands enjoying more job growth, but people are finding that they can perform the same high-level work here as they can in bigger markets,” Mehl said.

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