As an environmental economist for The Wilderness Society’s Northern Rockies Regional office, I am confident that rural western states are not immune from the financial mess in which the rest of the country finds itself.
Bad economic news generally hits rural western a bit later, but the inevitable slowdown is already happening. For example, Montana is now experiencing rising unemployment, more bankruptcies, frozen real estate markets, and declining state budgets. Montana industries that shone recently — like construction, mining, and energy — are now laying off workers and shelving expansion plans.
The silver lining in this bad news cloud is the opportunity to invest in Montana’s economic future. Men and women are ready to work, businesses have slack capacity, and some kind of federal stimulus will undoubtedly be passed.
What should Montana invest in? To prosper in the future, Montana must, like other businesses, maintain and improve its capital stock. It must care for its physical, human, and natural capital.
Physical capital includes roads and bridges to connect our communities, as well as parks, playgrounds, bike paths, public transportation, and communications networks. These human amenities are proven attractors of skilled workers and innovative entrepreneurs.
Improving Montana’s human capital means investments to insure a skilled, educated workforce. With almost no exceptions, research on economic growth shows that a skilled, educated workforce is a requirement for productivity increases, attracting high wage industry, and supporting innovative and profitable businesses. As Sen. Tester states, “We need to invest in education for the future of our kids and grandkids, and for the country’s prosperity.”
Most important is the opportunity to invest in Montana’s natural capital — its rivers, prairies, wetlands, and forests that provide us with clean water, wildlife, abundant harvests, recreation, and countless other ecosystem services.
Because of past excesses and mistakes, many parts of our ecosystems are not functioning at full capacity. This represents a restoration opportunity. For example, right now there are $100 million in shovel-ready projects in Region One’s National Forests. About $60 million of these are in Montana. These projects range from fixing or decommissioning neglected forest roads, replacing washed-out culverts, containing the pollution from abandoned mines, replanting understocked forest stands, and thinning overgrown timber in the wildland-urban interface. Investing in such projects will provide a much-needed economic stimulus now and pay substantial dividends in the future.
Montana, like the rest of the nation, faces tough economic choices. To me, it is clear that the best choice is to invest in Montana’s physical, human, and natural capital.