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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 legacy of resource-extraction economies is one of boom and inevitable bust, and there are few, if any, exceptions," he says.

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Others aren't quite so evangelical in their dismissal of the Old Economy for the New. Steve Daines is Montana's lone congressman – the first from Bozeman – and in many ways is a product of both economies. The son of a prominent construction company owner, he spent summers driving a dump truck and pouring concrete.

When he graduated from MSU with a degree in chemical engineering, he had to leave town to find a job in his field. He worked for Procter & Gamble for 13 years, in Iowa and Asia, before returning to Bozeman to take a position at RightNow Technologies. He tells the story of how, in the mid-2000s, the company couldn't attract top-flight software engineers. So it placed an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle showing a downhill skier plying waist-deep snow, with the words "Work Where You Also Like To Play."

Hundreds of résumés poured in. "It surprised us," says Representative Daines.

A self-described free-market Republican, Daines embraces the Green Economy – ardently. "We need to try and foster the kind of synergy you see in Bozeman across the rest of the state," he says. But he also wants Montana to develop more of its natural resources, especially oil and natural gas and its prodigious deposits of coal.

Max Baucus, the powerful Democratic senator from Helena, Mont., plans to retire to Bozeman after his current term ends. He echoes the need for what he calls a balanced approach. "The diversity of Montana's economy is key to its strength – from the bedrock of traditional natural resource development to agriculture to developing cutting-edge technologies and cloud computing," Senator Baucus says.

Boosters of the Green Coast idea know it can't solve all the region's problems. Mehl, the Bozeman city commissioner, for one, notes that widespread challenges exist across the rural West, such as high unemployment, vanishing traditions, and stagnant wages, and that scenery alone can't sustain every town. "Other places are hurting," Mehl says. "Geography still plays an important role, and, unfortunately, there are geographies where people either can't or don't want to live."

Even Eden has its shadows. In Bozeman, rising real estate prices, rents, and cost of living have forced working-class people to outlying communities. In recent years, for the first time ever, the city has had to open up a homeless shelter in winter, and in the summer small hobo camps have sprung up on the edge of town where people live who came looking for nirvana and didn't find it. Demand at a local food bank has been growing, too.

But many of Bozeman's challenges stem from too much growth – an enviable problem to have – and the town remains one of the premier symbols of an isolated community, once dismissed as a parochial cow town, that has found new relevance in the modern world. Couple that with the self-sufficient, bootstrap culture of the West, locals say, and the town will continue to be a magnet for the Patagonia-wearing digital generation – and a model of the Green Coast economy.

As Gianforte, whose trophy room at his house now includes not only that prized bear, but also a mountain goat and other big-game animals, puts it: "A lot of these kids have gone to Montana State University and become engineers, but they go to work for Boeing in Seattle. They would have stayed if there had been a job here. That exodus is reversing itself, and they're applying that same sense of can-do problem solving to grow jobs."

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