Produce jobs through energy conservation, land restoration, speaker says

Montana should start regrowing jobs in the next few years, but it could do it a lot faster by concentrating on two opportunities, according to a University of Montana researcher.

“It just requires patient capital,” O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West director Larry Swanson said at the “Into the Future” job growth conference on Tuesday. “This would mean thousands of jobs in every community – it’s a no-brainer.”

The two targets are energy conservation and environmental restoration, Swanson told the conference, which was organized by the Montana AFL-CIO. Those areas would employ large swaths of skilled workers who’ve suffered layoffs and closures during the recent economic downturn.

One of the biggest losers in the Montana work force has been the construction industry. While the state’s population growth doesn’t look likely to fuel more new housing activity, Swanson said, renovating existing housing could provide jobs for skilled workers like electricians, plumbers and carpenters.

Swanson proposed copying a recent program in Nebraska, where power companies underwrote upgrades to heating and cooling systems, insulation and other energy drains in existing homes and businesses. Dollar for dollar, such energy-savings work was more cost-effective than building new power-generating plants to meet growing demand, he said.

By example, spending $10,000 apiece on half the state’s existing homes built before 1990 would cost about $1.7 billion. That money would be repaid in lower energy costs statewide, and could be financed on the same long-term, low-interest bonds that have funded power plant construction for years.

The second target doesn’t have such an obvious funding source, but still needs doing, according to state Department of Environmental Quality reclamation specialist Hayden Janssen. The state has a huge backlog of forest thinning, river repair, mine waste cleanup, industrial recovery and other deferred maintenance necessary for public safety and environmental protection.

Those projects – many of which are already engineered and reviewed – could employ a variety of laborers. Skill levels range from tree-planters to heavy equipment operators to remediation engineers Janssen said. Many already have experience in the last decade’s restoration-economy projects, he added. Those range from private efforts such as Plum Creek Timber Co.’s remediation of Fisher River roadways to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund work at Milltown Dam.

The past decade has pushed Montana through some game-changing market forces, said Craig Rawlings of the Forest Business Network. Incidents like the closure of Smurfit-Stone Container Corp.’s pulp mill, the collapse of the construction industry and pine-beetle infestations have transformed the state’s timber economy.

“But the trees didn’t quit growing in Montana when the economy slowed,” Rawlings said. “There’s all this work that needs to be done to restore forests, and bring them back to a more natural state. The industry has to figure out how to make products out of the thinning and small-diameter timber and slash piles we’re producing. And some of those things will end up being job producers.”