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Vote Now: Where Should Roll Call Travel for the Midterm Elections?

An Investment in the Outdoors and Innovation | Commentary

America’s clean energy and high-tech revolution has gone West. Yes, the geography is conducive to new energy technologies — a natural home to wind and solar. While it may surprise some, the geography also proves to be conducive to intellectual creativity and innovation.

E.O. Wilson’s concept of biophillia — “connections that humans subconsciously seek with life” — reinforces the idea that we will be more creative when we can be closer to nature and the outdoors. Western CEOs agree. Gregg Heil, founder and CEO of Encoding.com, says: “Like many other folks starting and growing businesses in Colorado in other sectors of the economy such as technology and innovation, I have chosen to locate my business here because of the access to our beautiful mountains, streams and quality of life.”

MercuryCSC CEO Jeff Welch says: “Access to high quality public lands helps us recruit new businesses to Montana and retain talented employees who value our quality of life. It builds our brand as a great place to do business. It attracts entrepreneurs and investment that we otherwise would not get.”

Economists have shown that higher-wage services industries are leading the West’s job growth and diversifying the economy. From 1970 to 2010, the region’s employment grew by 152 percent compared to 78 percent for the rest of the country. This job growth was almost entirely in the high-tech, health care, real estate, and finance and insurance industries, which created 19.3 million net new jobs.

These tech and service-industry jobs are booming in the West because many entrepreneurs like Heil and Welch are what economists call “foot loose” — they’re choosing to work where they and their employees can enjoy an outdoor quality of life. Communities such as Denver, Salt Lake City, Boulder, Colo., Bozeman, Mont., and Seattle, which offer high-speed Internet and access to public transportation and protected public lands such as national parks and monuments, are winning the competition for talent. In fact, the Rocky Mountains have been dubbed the “Silicon Mountains.”

Yet a 50-year-old program that protects these parks and monuments — the Land and Water Conservation Fund — is at risk. Funded with fees paid by oil and gas companies drilling offshore, not taxpayer dollars, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has protected and expanded our federal public lands base, as well as provided matching grants for community-funded parks and trails in nearly every county in the country. It is a critical tool in defending a diminishing resource — open space — and the outdoor quality of life.

Despite a long history of bipartisan support, Congress has recently made several shortsighted attempts to cut funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. More than ever before, our mounting environmental and social problems require collaboration among many entities — government, business, university, nonprofit. The Land and Water Conservation Fund is a great example of how to make business work for the greater good.

As President Barack Obama said this summer in proclaiming Great Outdoors Month, “Fortunately, we do not have to choose between good environmental stewardship and economic progress because they go hand-in-hand. ... Our natural spaces are also laboratories for scientists, inventors and creators — Americans who sustain a tradition of innovation that makes our country the most dynamic economy on earth.”

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