Every day, Idaho faces the challenge of what to do with its protected wild lands. Whether it's dredge-mining riverbeds, exploring a vast network of trails and campsites or protecting homeowners in the Wood River Valley from forest fires, managing the balance between the economic, recreational and environmental values of Idaho's natural spaces is an tangle of competing interests.
During his City Club-hosted Idaho Environmental Forum lecture Thursday, Sept. 5, at the Owyhee Hotel, Ray Rasker of Headwaters Economics, made the case that natural spaces are more beneficial to economies like Boise's than the raw stuff hidden beneath--as long as a central principle of economics is applied:
"What matters is that value is created and people are rewarded for their work," he said.
Rasker broke down the question of whether protected, public lands in the American West benefit local economies to a number of factors, including history, the health of national and global economies, a town or city's access to an airport, the education level of its workforce, access to technology and the local attitude towards growth. If the conditions are right, Rasker said, Boise might experience amenities migration--an influx of new residents relocating to be closer to work and recreation.
"People move to places they once visited as tourists," he said.
This phenomenon is more plausible than ever. Internet-based commerce has freed a lot of workers from cities where major firms are headquartered to perform their jobs in places of their choosing. Some of these pilgrims start companies of their own.
"Some people are footloose," Rasker told the audience.
Less loose is how they've economically impacted communities to which they've relocated. Amenities migration has turned many Western U.S. communities into tech hubs: In Bend, Ore., easy access to resorts at Mt. Bachelor, Sun River and Black Butte has made it a destination for companies like BendBroadband, G5, Agere Pharmaceuticals and Element 1. In Rasker's hometown of Bozeman, Mont., the great outdoors have lured businesses like Schedulicity and RightNow Technologies.
According to a map by Vizual Statistix that made the rounds on the Internet, some parts of Idaho are among the most isolated in the U.S., but that depends on what's meant by isolation. Boiseans are a short distance from multiple ski resorts including Bogus Basin, Tamarack and Brundage Mountain. Year-round recreation opportunities include mountain biking and hiking trails, whitewater rafting and kayak parks, camping, fishing and hunting.
Those opportunities may or may not be why high-tech, medical or other industries which employ skilled and educated workforces--with luminaries like Hewlett Packard, Micron and 2AI--have feathered nests in the Treasure Valley, but their employees have been a part of the push to preserve the Boise Foothills viewshed.
In 2011, the Hillside to Hollow Coalition successfully lobbied to preserve a 59-acre parcel known as Harrison Hollow. The next year, the city of Boise purchased 154 acres west of Collister Drive. In June, the Boise City Council appropriated $1.9 million in funds to purchase 260 acres near Bogus Basin Road. More city acquisitions of Foothills lands may be in the works.
"People are voting with their dollars," said Rasker.
Rasker's research has drawn a correlation between protected lands and higher income, but the economics of that correlation are murky. More certain is the fact that cities like Boise have lower costs of living than Silicon Valley: Living in Boise is less expensive and the quality of life is higher than in major cities.
"There's a unique combination of amenities and cost of living," Rasker said.
Perpetuating the cycle of amenities migration is education, which primes economic pumps with a steady flow of educated workers. The presence of numerous colleges and universities in the Treasure Valley, like Boise State University, the College of Idaho and College of Western Idaho Rasker described as "critical" to Boise's continued economic strength.
Education continues to be a hot topic on the local and state levels in Idaho, but Rasker says maintaining the protected status of public lands should be a component in any growing community's portfolio.
"We have a wild country and an advanced economy," he said.