Tips for surviving in the New West

  I am intrigued by Ed Marston's statement (HCN, 12/26/94) that "There have been a bunch of studies of this new economy by environmental groups and their economists; almost all welcome it." The economy of the New West is not necessarily better - just different. It brings with it new opportunities but also new problems.

Our analysis of the economy of greater Yellowstone, The Wealth of Nature, found that a new economy had emerged that was very different from people's ordinary perceptions, much of it driven by the region's quality of life. We also were quick to point out that amenity-based growth brings with it a whole new set of problems, foremost among them the subdivision of land for residential development, and increasingly, a growing gap between the rich and poor.

In the Yellowstone region, for example, we found that over one-third of all private lands have been subdivided into plots no longer suitable in size for agriculture. Wilderness Society research on the economy of the West has uncovered these basic themes:

* It makes no sense for public-lands managers to try to stimulate "community stability" by supplying communities with a steady flow of raw materials from public lands. This form of central planning has never worked. Even if it were possible to manipulate natural systems to produce a steady and predictable flow of grazing, mineral, energy and timber resources, it is unlikely that the economy of "dependent" communities will remain stable.

* Subsidies encourage a much larger development of public-land resources, like logging, ski hill development or gold mining, than would occur in the absence of such subsidies. Most importantly, these subsidies do not create more jobs. Subsidies act as a powerful incentive to not change to global economic conditions. They anchor communities in the past, encouraging the development of 19th-century working skills in a 21st-century, knowledge-based economy.

* Much of the economic development in the West is stimulated by community, environmental and social factors rather than traditional economic ones, such as access to raw materials. The success of the Western economy no longer depends solely on what we can dig up or chop down. Instead, it depends on the skills and ingenuity of the people and the quality of life of our communities. Environmental quality and economic well-being are therefore complements, not substitutes.

* The amenity-based growth taking place throughout the West helps diversify the economy of some rural communities, but it also puts more pressure on private land and it increases the tensions between the "newcomers' and "old-timers." Land-use planning is the most pressing social and environmental issue in the West today. Communities need to learn that, if growth occurs, they can tap into it and guide it in a way that helps preserve the values of the community.

* Education, both formal and hands-on skill development, is an important determinant to individual success in the economy. Without it, old-time residents will be unprepared to stake a claim in the New West, and they end up serving hamburgers to newcomers from the cities who do have those skills.

With regard to studies that show Montanans as angry and threatened by recent changes, they are probably right. Over the last 20 years Montana has added over 150,000 new jobs, yet not one of those jobs has been in agriculture, mining, energy or lumber and wood products.

The relevant questions facing Montanans are: Who is getting the new jobs? Are they newcomers from the city or are they native Montanans? How secure is the new economic makeup of the state? What role does quality of life play in people's decision to keep a business in the state, or for new firms to move to the state? What role does education and training play in making Montanans competitive in a global workforce?

The economic challenges facing the West today are enormous. Politicians and studies by organizations that perpetuate the myth of a cowboy economy do not help. Rural Westerners today must line up with the rest of the world for a job. Competition is keen, and the skills needed to survive are more and more technical in nature. The sooner we realize that, the sooner we will be able to adapt and compete effectively. If we don't, we'll end up sacrificing our towns to recent escapees from the city. Above all, now is the time for all of us in the West to learn how to work together for the common goal of an equitable economy and a healthy environment.

Ray Rasker

Bozeman, Montana

The writer is an economist for the Wilderness Society in its Northern Rockies regional office.