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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A prevailing perception is that the massive Bakken field, the poster child for America's newfound energy boom, is a juggernaut of profit. North Dakota, thanks to the twin gushers of oil and gas, now has a budget surplus of more than $1.6 billion. Skilled and unskilled roughnecks are pulling down high five-figure salaries. And the grandchildren of 19th-century European immigrants who were sodbusters have become millionaires overnight leasing their land to energy companies.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Unexpected Bozeman
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But consider this: Williston, N.D., regarded as the capital of energy development in the Bakken, has more than doubled in size, to a population of 36,000, notes Chris Mehl, who also works at Headwaters Economics and is a Bozeman city commissioner.
"Yes, for a small town and one of the least populous states in America, that's impressive, but it creates a distorted sense of how big it is in the eyes of the rest of the country," Mr. Mehl says. "Twenty thousand jobs isn't really that many in the big picture, and they'll exist for how long? Then what?"
Wyoming remains the most resource-extraction-dependent state in the West. Coal, oil, gas, and mining are cornerstones, but this year the state had to implement significant budget cuts as drillers shuttered thousands of wells that weren't profitable given a glut of natural gas in the market.
Schechter, who runs a Jackson Hole think tank called The Charture Institute, offers his own employment statistics. In Wyoming, Montana, and Colorado, the total number of jobs created through agriculture, mining, and forestry ranges in each sector, on average, between 3 and 5 percent, he says. While those industries are flat, the percentage of professional service jobs is growing fast, as is the percentage of the economy represented by retiree income.
"It's not that I'm unsympathetic to the energy industry, but it is not the answer to building a sustainable economy in the West," says John Baden, who served on the National Petroleum Council during the Reagan administration and founded the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment, a free-market environmental think tank in Bozeman. "Those who say it is are using the same kind of rhetoric that came out of the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s, but no one really buys into it anymore. Most of the West has moved on past the mind-set of the frontier."
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One question is how far the Green Economy can carry the West. How many Bozemans are there out there, really? It does, after all, have an idyllic setting – ringed by the Bridgers and not far from Yellowstone National Park, not to mention all those cutthroat trout. Its downtown is postcard quaint – historical red-brick buildings with boutique shops and trendy restaurants that serve more than just various parts of a Black Angus.
The town of 38,000 has a vibrant university, a citizenry steeped in athletic hedonism, and more people in Giro bicycle helmets than Stetsons. A dog seems de rigueur in every office warren.
No wonder Outside magazine has just named Bozeman as a top 10 finalist to be "best town ever" (readers to cast the final vote), which is just the latest publication to trumpet the community's virtues – to the horror of many locals who don't want it known.
Yet Rasker (who chides a reporter for showing up at his office in a car rather than on a bike) argues that the point isn't to reproduce other Bozemans. It's for towns in the West to understand the relationship between a healthy ecology and a healthy economy and to develop, to the extent they can, stable industries, such as tourism, recreation, and Knowledge Age businesses, that take advantage of the natural amenities.
Whenever Rasker delivers lectures around the country, he recommends that people read Enrico Moretti's book "The New Geography of Jobs," which maps out an emerging new economic landscape. Mr. Moretti's central thesis is that America's greatest raw material is ingenuity and brainpower. What will help secure a region's place in the world, and lead to dynamic microeconomies in the years ahead, will be the ability to attract human capital. That means, to Rasker, protecting the West's scenic beauty as much as possible – looking at trees rather than cutting them down.