Monuments, wilderness will spur economy, say academics

Dec 23, 2011

A letter signed by 100 academics urged the creation of new national parks, monuments and wilderness areas as a means of injecting much needed financial resources into western states. In the letter, signees asserted that businesses are attracted to areas surrounded by protected public lands that offer recreational opportunities, and that increasing the number of protected areas will provide the way forward for economic rejuvenation.

“We believe that federal protected public lands are essential to the West’s economic future,” the signees wrote. “These public lands, including national parks, wilderness areas and national monuments, attract innovative companies and workers, and are an essential component of the region’s competitive advantage.”

The letter also suggested that natural resource-based industries are of diminishing importance to western states, and that the economy would be better served by focusing on recreational opportunities, explaining that:

“[t]he rivers, lakes, canyons, and mountains found on public lands serve as a unique and compelling backdrop that has helped to transform the western economy from a dependence on resource extractive industries to growth from in-migration, tourism, and modern economy sectors such as finance, engineering, software development, insurance, and health care.”

Although natural resource extraction does play some economic role, the letter emphasized that natural resource use “can and must coexist with expanding protections for America’s worldclass natural amenities.”

The letter, signed primarily by economists “and academics in related fields,” was endorsed by three Nobel laureates: Kenneth Arrow of Stanford University, Robert Solow of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University. A small but notable number of signees were from western land grant universities.

Addressed to President Obama, other recipients of the letter included Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-OH, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

According to a report in The New York Times, the organizing force behind the letter was Headwaters Economics, “a nonprofit organization that studies the economics of natural resources, with a tilt toward preservation.” Headwaters Economics was created in 2005 and is based out of Bozeman, MT.

The Times reported that Headwaters economist Ray Rasker supported the letter’s message by pointing to a Headwaters study that found Grand County, UT, has developed a flourishing recreation-based economy, with jobs growing at a 7 percent annual rate in the ’90s, and tapering off to 2 percent annual growth in the present economic downturn.

Grand County is home to Arches National Park, and the outdoor recreationfriendly town of Moab. The area offers world-class mountain biking, off-roading, river rafting, rock climbing, hiking, photography and many other activities.

Yet some economists are skeptical about the letter’s intimation that restrictive federal land designations are an economic boon to most western economies, particularly rural economies, which depend on ranching, mining and other natural resource industries.

The Times reported that Ryan Yonk, assistant professor of political science at Southern Utah State in Cedar City, along with two other economists, has published a recent study showing the opposite of what signees of the letter claim: that restrictive designations for the most part have no positive economic impact on nearby communities.

“The economists who signed the letter are making a policy statement,” Yonk told The Times. “That’s fine. Where it goes off the rails is saying there are universally positive effects from protecting federal land.” — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent