Surprise: Westerners Can Eat the Scenery 

So let's see: Last month Boise, Idaho voted to raise the property tax to protect its foothills.

The same week Scottsdale, Arizona moved ahead on its plan to preserve 16,000 acres of state land at the edge of one of the West's hottest real-estate markets.

And now the Wall Street Journal tells how Fort Collins is holding to its master plan that mandates the addition of seven acres of parkland for every 1,000 new residents.

What's going on here? Are these gestures the latest round of too-little, too-late NIMBYism as the region continues to fail at managing its growth? A few years ago I would have agreed with that view. Today, I have a different hunch. What's happening in towns like Boise and Fort Collins is bigger and better than backlash.

Simply, the folks who run more and more of the West's growing towns are finally realizing that conservation sells -- not just to local voters but to the cool companies and footloose and canny professionals whose location decisions more and more determine who wins in the New Economy. To put it crassly, a "race to be green" has broken out in which town after town is moving to prove itself worthy of Hewlett-Packard and Intel and all those migrating laptop gypsies.

Think how the rise of the New Economy has altered the way cities establish their economic advantage. In the past, conservation commitments like Boise's or Scottsdale's were the opposite of economic development. That's because the key to success for Western communities has always been simple -- cheap land.

Cheap federal land anchored the old timber and metal economies. Later, cheap private land for subdivisions mattered most. And so the economic development game has centered always on making available plenty of low-cost land to local business interests.

No wonder the West's town fathers always frowned on land conservation. To them, every set-aside of open space and every environmental rule seemed to reduce the local supply of cheap land. But that was then.

With the rise of the knowledge-driven high-tech economy, things have begun to look different. No longer do the leaders of the smartest town governments view the environment as merely a source of dirt for the homebuilders. Rather, environmental quality has soared in importance, not just among local residents but as a requirement for economic growth.

Why has this happened? It's happened because a town's economic success turns less and less on cheap natural resources and more and more on local supplies of well-educated people, as economic development experts as diverse as Paul Romer, Michael Porter, Richard Florida, Thomas Power and Terry Nichols Clark have been explaining.

Companies flourish today only if they have lots of highly educated creative types to dream up the processes, write the code and execute the business plans that prevail.

Meanwhile, such people who can live where they want know what they want. These so-called "knowledge workers" are choosing to live in "cool" places with walkable downtowns (think Bozeman), "thick" labor markets (think Denver), decent schools and bike lanes for commuting.

They say they want the status of living in a region with a rich sense of place and an active lifestyle. And yes, they gravitate to places with superb natural spaces. As Westerners know, these places are nearly always on publicly owned lands. Didn't there used to be an expression, "You can't eat the scenery"? You can now.

Environmental quality and dramatic open spaces have become important not simply as ends in themselves but as prerequisites for attracting talent and companies, whether for moves to Boulder or Missoula, Salt Lake City or Tucson.

Mountainous backdrops to a city provide a sense of place. Snaking mountain bike runs and challenging trails supply active recreation. And a local park system embodies for all to see a region's commitment to livability.

The land, in effect, becomes the "brand." To get quality growth, you have to get smart people, and to get smart people you have to go green. Viewed in this light, Scottsdale's plans for a gigantic mountain preserve, and the environmentalism of Boise's mayor, Brent Coles, a solid Republican, look a lot better than too-little-too-late. What they demonstrate is that a new era for the West is being born.

Mark Muro is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (www.hcn.org). He is an analyst at the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University.


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