Economist discusses role of natural resources in local economies

TWIN BRIDGES – During a potluck dinner held at Twin Bridges Public School on Thursday evening members of various watershed groups throughout southwest Montana listened to a presentation by Mark Haggerty of Headwaters Economics on the economic benefits of having a healthy watershed.

The dinner was organized to bring together representatives from conservation districts and watershed groups from the Beaverhead, Big Hole, East Gallatin, Gallatin, Jefferson, Madison, Red Rocks and Ruby watersheds, and those in attendance brought insightful questions and information to the discussion.

Haggerty began his presentation by outlining the condition of the economy throughout the state, explaining that the perception from the outside is that it consists of wheat, oil, timber, mining and cattle industries. But according to a recent poll commissioned by conservation groups, nearly 89 percent of Montana residents believe farming and ranching to be the most important sector in Montana’s economy, Haggerty said.

While the value of farming and ranching cannot be understated, Haggerty said that health care has in fact been the fastest growing industry in the state, followed by tourism and retail, and a close evaluation of these industries reveals interesting trends in economic growth.

Of the six counties included in the Missouri Headwaters region, from 2000 to 2010 the population grew 8.6 percent faster, jobs increased 10 percent faster and personal income grew almost 8 percent faster than the rest of the state.

Haggerty says the growth can be directly related to the regions quality of life proximity to abundant natural resources.

“Our population growth is not necessarily from people being born in Montana but from people moving here from other places,” he said.

People come here because they want to live near national parks and wilderness areas, places with clean water and accessibility.

“We’ve done a lot of statistical analysis, and you can see that counties that more than 30 percent of their land base not just in public lands but protected public lands grew at a much faster rate than counties that did not have protected public lands within their boundaries,” said Haggerty. “Public lands and our quality of life are a huge asset.”

He also said there is potential for huge economic gain from people who move here from out of state to retire.

“They’re moving to wherever they used to go as a tourist. They sometimes bring their jobs with them, they certainly bring their income with them and they’re seeking out places that have high amenities,” Haggerty said. “In order to capitalize on this you need to have access, and a lot of places in Montana don’t have access. Even places like Madison County are pretty close, but aren’t quite close enough to getting jobs and businesses and income associated with them.”

The presentation emphasized the value of the natural resources found throughout the Missouri Headwaters region, as well as the importance of maintaining and preserving them for the future.

“Outdoor recreation contributes $2.5 billion in spending to the state, 34,000 jobs and $118 million in taxes,” said Haggerty. “So people coming here to ski or coming here to fish, this is a really important part of what’s going on in Montana.

“You’re talking about significant value being created by the type of work that you guys are doing in watersheds – going out and making sure that stream banks are stable, making sure that culverts are working properly, making sure that roads aren’t putting sediment into watersheds, making sure that grazing practices are appropriate – all of that stuff has real dollar value,” he continued.

“Everyone here working for a watershed group knows how many volunteer hours go into it, how many grant dollars go into it and how much time and effort it takes to take care of our watersheds,” Haggerty said.  “And that is all work that is part of our economy.”

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