Last Friday I had the honor of being the dinner speaker at the celebration of the publication of a new book. Sponsored by the Sonoran Institute, the book – Building From the Best in the Northern Rockies – is an illustration of development done right. In my remarks at Bozeman’s Emerson Center, I discussed today’s Rocky Mountain West and the significant and now obvious changes in our economy, population, job availability, as well as the migration patterns of our people.
Subdivisions have replaced some sawmills, but our economy is much healthier due to our new economic diversity. Taking care not to pave ourselves over with malls and parking lots, we can protect the land’s ability to sustain us. Safeguarding watersheds and wildlife habitats, preserving our playgrounds and parks, assuring decent wages and benefits, and providing careful development are tall orders but we are on our way toward meeting the challenges.
The evidence of the West’s transition is everywhere. Consider migration patterns. For four decades in this part of the West-that is, the high plains and mountains-people moved out, many of them to the coast. During our past two decades-the period of the transition-the population patterns have flipped. Although the coasts are most certainly not emptying out, they are spilling over-and they are doing so into the ramps and valleys of the middle and northern Rockies and the desert oasis in the southwestern Rockies.
And, although much of the High Plains West has troubling population declines, as a whole the West is experiencing rapid and significant increases in population. Those gains are not limited to our largest cities such as Denver and Salt Lake City, but have also reached our many moderately-sized cities such as Boise, Spokane, Fort Collins, and Bozeman. And by the way, these increases are not, as myth has it, retired people. The bulk of the recent in-migration to the states of the middle and Northern Rockies are people between the ages of 40 to 50. And a significant number of those people are Rocky Mountain westerners returning home.
During this decade, the states of the Rockies have experienced approximately ten percent population growth, compared to six percent nationally. It serves us well to understand where and why those gains are happening. Population and income growth are occurring in both the large and small cities that are located near natural amenities: national parks, open space, rivers and lakes, recreation areas including wilderness lands. Those, most of them, are within the mountain-touched counties of the Rocky Mountain West.
Ours is an “amenities-economy” driving significant and historically high growth in the private service sector industries. No, service jobs does not mean “hamburger flippers” working for minimum wage. Such a description demonstrates a profound misunderstanding about the West’s emergent economy. The “service economy” includes transportation, construction, medical services, legal services, architects, lodging, real estate, recreational services.
One of the most unusual aspects of our amenities economy is that it is “footloose.” That is perhaps the signature of the West’s historic transition. Footloose jobs are ones that follow people-after two centuries of people having to chase jobs. In the West’s old extractive economy, mining, oil, and timber companies located, of course, near the gold, silver, copper, oil and trees…that is where the jobs beckoned and the job seekers had to follow. Today, people seek not just jobs but also attractive locations with natural amenities…and jobs now follow the people. The growth and prosperity in this region is indisputably occurring closest to the landscape that has the most natural amenities: the parks, the mountains, rivers and lakes, and the most diverse and beautiful land on the high plains.
Seven counties in Montana-Gallatin, Yellowstone, Flathead, Cascade, Lewis and Clark, Silver Bow, and Missoula-account for 93% of the state’s population growth since the year 2000.
It is critically important, as that Sonoran Institute dinner and book demonstrate, that we move toward conscientious development as we build our neighborhoods, downtowns and plan for tomorrow. It may just be that development done right will be contagious.