The Rocky Mountain Front and the Heritage Act
Communities across Montana are looking for ways to enhance their economic prosperity and resiliency – and to leverage existing assets to support new competitive advantages.
Headwaters Economics recently completed a study of the Rocky Mountain Front region – Cascade, Lewis and Clark, and Teton counties – reviewing the area’s performance, how its economy is changing, and the potential impact of proposals such as the Heritage Act which would protect public land and traditional uses along the Front.
We found the Front’s economy well-positioned for future economic performance. The region has experienced stable long-term growth during recent decades, especially compared to many other parts of Montana, the area has avoided major employment swings associated with national recessions, and today has below average unemployment.
In addition, its traditional sectors like agriculture are relatively stable, and the region’s educational attainment is on par or better than national and state averages.
From 1970 to 2010, employment along the Front grew from 57,260 to 100,203, a 75 percent increase. Per capita income also has grown steadily, rising in real terms from $23,627 in 1970 to $39,749 in 2010, a 68 percent increase, and higher than the comparable figure for Montana.
A major cause of the rise in per capita income is the growth of non-labor sources of income-such as retirement and investments – which have been among the fastest growing sources of personal income, totaling $2.3 billion or 38 percent of total personal income for the region in 2010.
Looking at jobs, the region’s performance is largely due to the growth of services industries, which have been the primary drivers of employment growth in the region for some time.
During the last decade, the fastest-growing private sectors were all services related industries that paid relatively well: health care and social assistance (2,126 new jobs), professional and technical services (822 new jobs), and finance and insurance (983 new jobs).
Travel, tourism and recreation play a significant role in the area’s economy. In 2009, there were approximately 10,622 private wage and salary jobs in all travel and tourism sectors, representing 19 percent of total private wage and salary employment.
Outdoor recreation also is an important pillar of the economy. Hunter expenditures along the Front held steady through the recession and totaled $9.6 million in 2011, with out-of-state visitors spending more than $4.9 million.
In this context, the proposed Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, which would designate 67,000 acres of United States Forest Service land as Wilderness and 208,112 acres of Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land as a Conservation Management Area, would have a beneficial economic impact by helping to preserve the existing hunting, tourism and recreation sectors.
The economy of Montana and the American West also changed in important ways during the past several decades, and the Front’s natural amenities attract business owners, workers, and retirees.
As the services sector continues to drive growth, an increasing number and share of workers will be more “footloose” and able to perform their jobs from a variety of locations, including the Front.
The spectacular public lands of the Rocky Mountain Front give the region a natural competitive advantage that aids the local economy, but that’s not the whole picture. For the longer term, the Front region has assets other communities the West lack; such as transportation hubs, relatively strong per capita income, high quality of life, affordability and overall stability. How the Front region combines these advantages will play a large role in determining the area’s future economic growth and prosperity.