A healthy environment is obviously important for outdoor industry companies like Patagonia and L.L. Bean. But a lesser-known fact is that the outdoors is also a significant resource to companies who choose to locate near great places in order to lure employees to work for them.
That was the message delivered by a group of business leaders who visited Washington, D.C. this week to tell their elected officials that protected public lands like national parks, national monuments, and wildness areas are key to attracting talent and maintaining their bottom line. As Jeff Welch, the co-founder and president of Bozeman, Montana-based communications and advertising firm MercuryCSC put it:
The outdoors for us in our region is a big competitive advantage, it helps us recruit people from all over the country, even other places in the world to come to Montana. It’s really the only thing we have as a competitive advantage in a place like Bozeman.
And the president of software company Foundant Technologies, also located in Bozeman, echoed this sentiment:
We use the outdoors as a competitive advantage to attract and retain employees. And so the outdoors and access to public lands and preservation of public lands are really critical to our business.
These anecdotes are supported by growing research about the economic value of public lands. For example, a report from economic consulting firm Headwaters Economics found that the American West’s protected public lands help to create a high quality of life in the region, which draws both entrepreneurs and their employees. This is one reason that the region has seen more employment growth over the last 40 years compared to the United States overall (graph below). Other growth indicators such as population and personal income have also increased more in the West than in the rest of the country.
The report from Headwaters Economics also discusses how the economy of the West is changing. Whereas it once was based on resource extraction, it is diversifying to be more knowledge-based with industries like technology and health care. As the group writes, “This western job growth was almost entirely in services industries such as health care, real estate, high-tech, and finance and insurance, which created 19.3 million net new jobs, many of them high-paying.”
The business leaders’ trip to Washington comes at an important time for public lands policy. Sally Jewell, the former chief executive of outdoor company REI, was confirmed as the Secretary of the Interior last month. She will have a number of important decisions on her plate regarding public lands, from new rules about drilling and hydraulic fracturing to protecting landscapes that local communities want to see set aside for future generations.
And she will also have the challenge of better balancing energy development and conservation on public lands considering that during the first term of the Obama administration, 6.3 million acres of public lands were leased to oil and gas companies while only 2.6 million acres were permanently protected.