When Eric Siegfried says his Missoula-based company onXmaps wouldn’t exist without public lands, the words sound like a mantra he’s uttered a hundred times before. What other origin would there be for an app that turns a smartphone into a complex mapping tool? And nearly five years after onXmaps’ founding, it’s public lands, or rather the way Siegfried’s employees play on them, that continue to fuel the company’s innovation.
Siegfried recited the familiar refrain before a crowd of business owners and public-lands advocates at the Public House on May 31, one member of a six-person panel discussing links between the outdoors and Montana’s tech economy. For onXmaps, that link may be obvious. But according to Marne Hayes, executive director of Business for Montana’s Outdoors, which hosted the event, public lands and the increased quality of life they offer are a major reason why Montana is the chosen home of digital ad firm LumenAd, fiber-optic development company Adelos and so many others in the state’s fastest-growing sector.
“We’re talking about a $1.7 billion revenue-generating industry, with [job growth] nine times faster than the statewide economy,” Hayes said. “Impressively, the industry also has self-projected a 5 percent wage increase in 2018, and an addition of 1,200 jobs.”
In an era when public lands are, in the eyes of countless advocates, under siege, the companies that rely on them have taken an increasingly public stance. The North Face plastered the phrase “Protect Bears Ears” across T-shirts and hoodies in response to national monument reductions this year, directing all profits from the outerwear to the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. Patagonia took a more pointed approach, stamping its online homepage with a stinging political rebuke: “The President Stole Your Land.” Here in Montana, those same public-lands rollbacks elicited a string of critical video responses from outfitters, tea shop owners and brewers — all of them members of Hayes’ organization, which distributed the videos.
Though the tech sector’s economic contribution to Montana cracks the $1 billion mark, that pales in comparison to the $7.1 billion the Outdoor Industry Association estimates that outdoor recreation brings to the state annually. And the tech leaders at Thursday’s panel were quick to acknowledge that those same public-lands opportunities are a key selling point in recruiting and retaining talent. Headquartering in the Treasure State has also given some of Montana’s tech companies added credibility with certain customers and clients, with LumenAd Director of Marketing Anthony Krolczyk specifically citing his company’s work with the Sierra Club.
“If we said we were in downtown Minneapolis, but we understand where you’re coming from and we’re going to represent your brand, it resonates on a different level when we’re in Montana and we understand that value of our natural resources,” Krolczyk said.
When it comes to what these companies can do to return the favors public lands have done for them, the answers weren’t as bold or showy as the white block letters on Patagonia’s homepage. Krolczyk spoke of LumenAd’s support for Missoula’s Five Valleys Land Trust. Alex Philp, founder and chief technology officer at Adelos, itself a subsidiary of the tribally owned Salish & Kootenai Technologies, expressed his own personal commitment to defending public lands — an allegiance sparked by past jobs with the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service.
“Some of the technical advantages the tech sector would bring to this discussion — we could help tell stories through digital media,” Philp said after the panel. “We could help let people know, more importantly, where are these public lands that are under threat.”
Ultimately, Philp adds, the decision to take up an advocacy role is one that individual tech companies, whether members of Business for Montana’s Outdoors or not, will make on their own. After Thursday’s panel, Siegfried told the Indy that was a choice onXmaps made years ago. The company sponsors the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s longstanding initiative to secure and enhance access to public lands, and last year partnered with RMEF to develop a new layer for its digital maps highlighting public-access points and conservation projects. OnXmaps also works with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership to influence policy decisions in Washington, D.C., including pressing for reauthorization and full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
“I don’t think they necessarily have to give back to public lands,” Siegfried said of Montana tech companies. “It should be something that’s part of their DNA. For us, it was a part of our DNA.”