Last year, the University of Montana conducted a poll that showed more voters than ever believe Montana’s great outdoors benefits our economy and quality of life. Nearly 80 percent of voters said national parks and our public lands and waters had positive impacts on personal income and job growth in the Treasure State.

Montana’s traditional economic base of agriculture, mining, and timber is still very important, but in the 21st century, more and more of us are realizing the great outdoors is diversifying our economic base and creating new jobs for our communities.

This new growth isn’t just coming tourism or flipping burgers. Whether it is innovation in manufacturing, marked strides in engineering, or recruiting and retaining top talent in the tech sector, our public lands are driving new growth and opportunity. According to the Kauffman Foundation, one of the heaviest areas in the nation for new business creation is right here in Montana. The landscapes of Montana are our competitive advantage that helps entrepreneurs from a variety of industries choose to do business in Montana.

There is additional data to back this message. Headwaters Economics just released a new report that shows year-after-year, Montana’s economy outpaces the rest of the nation in terms of job growth and personal income growth. In the last 15 years, Montana’s economy created 102,000 net new jobs with 85 percent coming from service-related industries such as outdoor recreation, health care, real estate, professional and technical services. This new high-growth sector is contributing to Montana’s ability to outpace the national average in both job and income growth. It includes high value, high paying jobs that create opportunities for attracting doctors, lawyers and high-tech firms.

This new research also shows that public lands are magnets for this new job growth and economic activity. Rural counties in the West with a higher share of America’s public lands performed better on average than their peers with less public lands in four key economic measures: personal income growth, per capita income, employment and population.

The diversification of Montana’s economy should not be seen as a threat to Montana’s traditional economic base. We truly are the treasure state because agriculture continues to be Montana’s top industry. Meanwhile timber and mining have an important place in Montana’s economy and help rural counties shore up their local tax bases. However, a more diverse economy helps the state adapt to economic volatility that is historically more prevalent with boom and bust extractive industries.

In the Business for Montana’s Outdoors ranks, we are proud to have businesses of all sizes, from every corner of the state, representing diverse business models and sectors. We are united by our belief that public lands are as important for our businesses today as they are for tomorrow’s entrepreneurs. Our business members believe the great outdoors will continue to be a significant factor to their success. Montana’s outdoor economy generates $2.2 billion in wages and salaries, $7.1 billion in consumer spending, $286 million in state and local tax revenue, and supports 71,000 jobs. Those are not small numbers.

Our state is stronger when we embrace diversification. Any attempts to entertain a debate over natural resources extraction versus new job growth in other sectors is simply missing the point. This is not an either or conversation. The more jobs we have, the more opportunities there will be for future generations of Montanans to grow up in a state we all love, raising families in the Last Best Place for years to come.

-- Marne Hayes, of Bozeman, is the director of Business for Montana’s Outdoors.

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