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Cover Story

Return of the Rocky Mountain high

Towns in the Mountain West, once held back by their isolated geography, are luring a new generation because of their scenic beauty. The hub of the 'Green Coast' movement: Bozeman, Montana.

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"The notion used to be that if you weren't mining the landscape of its ore, or cutting down the forest for its trees, or covering the range with cattle, you were doing something wrong and your economy would stagnate," says Ray Rasker, the cofounder of Headwaters Economics, a think tank in Bozeman that analyzes socioeconomic-environmental trends. "But Bozeman and a handful of other communities in the West have evolved beyond that frontier mind-set. They're thriving not in spite of being surrounded by protected public lands and putting certain kinds of development off limits, but because of it."

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A recent study by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a New York-based think tank, identified four economic provinces that it believes will shape America's economic revival. One is the "third coast," an area stretching from Texas to Tampa, Fla., along the Gulf of Mexico. Another is the manufacturing belt of the Southeast – extending from Alabama through Tennessee and the Carolinas – and a third is the Great Plains, from the Dakotas down through Oklahoma and Texas, where oil and natural-gas development is indeed helping spur a renaissance.

But the study identified the Intermountain West as having the highest rate of job growth over the past 10 years – 14.7 percent, more than three times the national average. The region's population climbed 20 percent. Its major urban hubs are Provo-Salt Lake City along the Wasatch Mountains of Utah; Colorado Springs-Denver-Boulder-Fort Collins along the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies; Spokane, Wash.; and Boise, Idaho.

"At some point, the Intermountain West could well become a true rival of Silicon Valley, as more trained workers and entrepreneurs flock to the area," writes Joel Kotkin, author of the Manhattan Institute study "America's Growth Corridors: The Key to National Revival."

No one is suggesting that quaint Bozeman will become the next Santa Clara, Calif. It's considered a generation behind the evolution, even, of Boulder. But many do believe it epitomizes the emergence of the Green Coast economy – and could be a model for other rural communities across the West.

* * *

Mr. Rasker likes to speak of the ironic din. Every day in the dark early hours before dawn, he's awakened by the clatter of coal trains, some of them more than 100 cars long, passing through Bozeman.

The railroad traffic has become a resurrected symbol of wealth creation in this corner of the West. With metronome regularity, vast amounts of coal, mined in huge open pits on the high plains of Wyoming, whisk through town bound for port cities in the Pacific Northwest and ultimately power plants in Asia. The number is expected to increase threefold as the US moves to export the carbon-rich fuel.

To Rasker, an economist, the sight of the cavalcade is poignant, especially in Bozeman, which he considers a rapidly emerging hub of the green-amenity economy, casting its lot in many ways as a counterpoint to the traditional resource-extraction economy of the American West. In places like this, he believes forest groves are more valuable as scenery than they are in the lumberyard.

Such declarations are considered heresy – interpreted as a flat-out rejection of traditional cultural identity and much of the politics of the region. But Rasker, who migrated here himself for the lifestyle and who has the lean frame of someone who has spent hundreds of hours on the seat of a mountain bike, marshals a wide variety of statistics to show that quality-of-life issues matter in today's microeconomies.

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