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Is There Economic Value to That National Monument in Your Backyard?

Muley Point sunset, copyright QT Luong,

Economic studies point out that protected lands such as national monuments and national parks are economic engines for surrounding communities and even the states they're located in. Photo of sunset near Muley Point on the edge of Cedar Mesa in southeastern Utah, copyright QT Luong,, used with permission.

A sure-fire way to boost the economy in Western states is to designate a national monument or establish a national park, as past performance shows these landscapes bolster the surrounding communities with long-lasting jobs and revenue streams tied to much, much more than simply tourism.

While tourism sectors -- lodging, restaurants, guide services, etc. -- do benefit, economists and researchers note that these special places attract a diverse spectrum of revenue flows generated by second-home owners, retirees, and "foot-loose entrepreneurs" who have the financial wherewithal and freedom to live where they desire and telecommute. Indeed, those economists say, tourism alone is not a sound economic pillar.

"I think tourism is largely irrelevant to what we’re talking about. People keep latching onto tourism because it’s like mining, or it's like agriculture -- it’s export-oriented activity that brings new money in to the economy," said Dr. Thomas Power, an economist at the University of Montana who long has followed the economics of land preservation. "Healthy economies don’t grow in that sort of simple-minded dependent way. They become increasingly sophisticated, taking in each other’s wash, that allows them to capture and hold the money that's being spent within the economy so that more income and more employment is generated by it."

When national monuments or national parks are created, they often act like magnets for both those who make their livelihoods in those settings and those who want to live nearby for the quality-of-life benefits that come with these places. After all, if you like to backpack, climb, or fish, wouldn't you prefer to live next door to a 100,000+-acre landscape chock-full of such opportunities rather than drive a few hours to reach them? And if you're a business owner, such settings could help you lure top-notch workers.

"The managers and owners of the companies care where they live too, and partly because they can hire high-quality workers for a much lower wage if they get out of the southern California or the Puget Sound area," Dr. Power noted.

Economics weren't mentioned last month when word trickled down to Republican members of the House Natural Resources Committee that Interior officials were mulling a list of 14 potential monuments in the West that President Obama could single-handedly create via his powers under the Antiquities Act. In chastising the administration for not holding these discussions in public, they said the administration would be guilty of "one of the worst examples of secret insider dealings" if the public and Congress didn't have a say in the decision-making process.

In their derision, the Republicans asserted that the "proposed designations and acquisitions would lock-up at least 13 million acres of land in 11 Western states, cost hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars and be done without Congressional approval. It would also have huge ramifications on our nation’s energy, restricting access to immense oil, gas, and mineral deposits, as well as blocking pipelines and transmission corridors."

Across the hall, U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett, a Utah Republican whose state had two candidates on the list, was particularly incensed, saying "(T)he Obama administration continues to put the needs of environmentalists who want to keep the public away from public lands above the needs and desires of Utahns."

Utah politicians had good cause to be alarmed by word that the administration was reviewing potential national monuments, including the San Rafael Swell and Cedar Mesa landscapes in the Beehive State. In 1996 then-President Clinton, a Democrat, created the not-quite 1.9-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in the southern reach of the state without consulting Utah's Republican congressional delegation. Designation of the monument, almost equal to Yellowstone National Park in size, killed plans by a Dutch company to develop a coal mine on 10,000 acres of land on the Kaiparowits Plateau on the eastern edge of the monument.

Sen. Bennett's initial comments over whom the Obama administration was favoring were over-reaching, though, as designation of a national monument, preserve or park does not preclude public access to, or use of, the land. Indeed, there are national monuments, such as the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument in Montana, with ongoing energy development (allowed as there were valid existing rights at the time the monument was created) and open to four-wheel drive travel. Big Thicket National Preserve in Texas has oil production, and ATV and ORV traffic is commonplace at Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida. Even the much debated (in Utah, at least) Grand Staircase National Monument invites off-road vehicle use, mountain biking, and horse travel. (Note: Monuments managed by the BLM, such as the Grand Staircase and Upper Missouri River Breaks, have a greater multiple-use approach than do National Park Service monuments.)

These places don't "keep the public away" but rather put folks to work and raise the overall economic profile of the surrounding communities and even the states they're located in, research shows. Utah, for instance, spends tens of millions of dollars promoting its national parks, monuments, and other recreational landscapes and benefits handsomely, as the Institute for Outdoor Recreation and Tourism at Utah State University notes.

In 2008, 20.4 million visitors traveled to Utah (Utah Office of Tourism, Governor's Office of Economic Development). Taken together, outdoor recreation and tourism represent one of the largest and fastest growing sectors of Utah's economy, with tourism accounting for an estimated $7.1 billion in traveler spending and 113,030 tourism-related jobs in 2008. This visitor spending generated $631 million in state and local tax revenues, revenue that helps pay for services and infrastructure Utah residents and visitors use and enjoy. The Utah tourism industry continues to be a significant driver of the state's economy.


As Dr. Power and others point out, national monuments and parks nurture economic growth that's not dollar-weak or as vulnerable to booms and busts as, for instance, mining and energy development can be.

In 2004 the Sonoran Institute, a non-profit based in Arizona that "inspires and enables community decisions and public policies that respect the land and people of western North America," examined the economic impact creation of the Grand Staircase had on the two Utah counties it overlaps, Garfield and Kane. That analysis, which studied the years leading up to the monument's creation and the years immediately following, found that the monument did not at all blunt the region's economic growth.

In Garfield County, while personal income from labor in real terms grew by 14 percent in the four years prior to the Grand Staircase's establishment, it grew by 18 percent the four following years, noted the report, Prosperity in the 21st Century West. Unemployment, meanwhile, fell from 12.4 percent in 1995 to 9.2 percent in 2001, the study noted. At the same time Kane County, where personal income in real terms grew 27 percent in the four years prior to the monument's creation, saw growth increase 33 percent in the four ensuing years, the study added, and unemployment dropped from "8.7 percent in 1995 to 3.5 percent in 2001."

Along with personal income growth and job creation, the monument helped boost real estate values, the report found.

Real estate values give yet another indicator of the economy’s strength and how much people want to live in the area. In both Escalante and Kanab, the communities most impacted by the designation of the Monument, the mean value of a home has risen substantially since 1996. The median value of a home in Escalante rose from $69,432 in 1990 to more than $100,000 in 2000, a 45 percent rise, in real terms. In Kanab the mean value of a home dropped by 13 percent from 1980 to 1990, before the Monument designation. From 1990 to 2000, it rose by 23 percent. The mean value of a home in 1990, before the designation of the Monument, was a little more than $86,000. This rose to more than $106,000 by 2000.

These trends dispel the argument that the Monument designation - setting aside public lands for protection against development - would result in economic decline and spawn only low-paying tourism jobs and hurt real estate values


At the Outdoor Industry Foundation, an organization with a vested-interest in outdoor recreation, a Fall 2006 study calculated that outdoor recreation contributes $730 billion to the national economy annually.

When you look at the list of potential monuments the administration is considering, it's not hard to predict that Western states would see an economic boost from any designations by the president, as those states contributed the most to that $730 billion identified by the OIA report. In the Intermountain Region, outdoor recreation in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, Mountain, Utah, Nevada and Wyoming generated $61.5 billion, according to the report, along with 617,186 jobs and $8.9 billion in state and federal taxes. In the Pacific Region, Alaska, California, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington the total contribution was $81.7 billion, 762,247 jobs and $9.4 billion in state and federal taxes.

While OIA believes there's a place for both recreation and energy and minerals development, it highlights the benefits of conserving landscapes.

"When we commented on land-management planning -- and sometimes it’s been mining, other times it’s been oil and gas drilling -- we made the argument that the recreation economy is something that’s, by leaving the land intact, you guarantee an economy into the future that’s a renewable resource," said Amy Roberts, the organization's vice president for government affairs. "You are leaving the pristine area intact, you’re not taking out the minerals that are there, ... what you’re guaranteeing is year-upon-year of recreational activity there."

Mining jobs, while providing a quick, and significant, injection of revenue into the local and state economies, usually don't have the staying power of an economy built around a national monument or park, she added.

“If you look at Vernal [Utah], or even what’s going on in Pinedale [Wyoming], they will have this major influx where they’ve got these, either oil and gas or mining jobs, that come into town, but then eventually they pack up and leave. It’s very boom and bust," Ms. Roberts said, referring to the oil fields surrounding Vernal and the gas fields near Pinedale. "What happens is the towns build all these services to support these high-paying jobs ... and then it’s done and people leave and now you’ve got this infrastructure that there are no services for.”

That sentiment is shared by Joe Marlow, a land economist with the Sonoran Institute.

"People move out here to be in the West because of that environment, and if that environment gets significantly degraded, then that takes away, essentially, our landscapes our clean air, clean water, beautiful views, wonderful places to recreate outdoors, places to hunt, to fish, to do all of the active outdoor recreation," said Mr. Marlow. "Those are all there because of our landscapes. If we degrade those then we sort of damage a significant economic asset for economic development."

Before arriving at OIA, Ms. Roberts worked for Micron Technologies, the data storage giant. When the company decided in 1995 to build a $1.3 billion semiconductor plant in Utah, it did so in large part because of the state's recreational amenities, she said.

"You’re basically looking to attract $50,000 to $70,000 engineers right out of school, and they’re looking for recreational opportunities where they’re going to locate their families," noted Ms. Roberts. "So by providing those, you’re going to drive businesses that maybe don’t have anything to do with recreation and are high-paying like the semiconductor industry, but they’re coming there because they’re going to be able to attract a workforce.”

Ray Rasker, who oversaw the Prosperity in the 21st Century West report for the Sonoran Institute, now directs Headwaters Economics, anindependent non-profit research group based in Bozeman, Montana. An interesting followup to the Prosperity study is one in which Headwaters compared the economies of rural Western counties in which fossil-fuel jobs represented more than 7 percent of a county's overall payroll to other rural counties with lesser involvement in energy development.

"The non-energy focused counties did much better than the energy focused ones," pointed out Chris Mehl, the research firm's communications director. "

While Sen. Bennett has introduced legislation to block presidents from wielding the Antiquities Act in Utah -- a move that only one other state, Wyoming, has ever succeeded with, and that in response to the creation of the Jackson Hole National Monument, the forerunner to Grand Teton National Park -- and Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., was unsuccessful late last month to block the president from creating any national monuments in the West, Mr. Mehl struggles to imagine what the West might be like without public lands and the monuments and national parks.

“I’d say we’ve benefited from them (public lands). I mean, most of the studies I’ve cited, if you have public lands in your county, you do better than counties that don’t have public lands," he said, adding that, "I would not want to live in New Jersey myself. And I think any person who was fortunate enough to get an elk this fall would agree with me.”

"We have an enormous amount of land in the West that is truly multiple use in the truest sense of the word," he said a few minutes later. "In some ways the West is, partly because of the lack of population, we’ve had it both ways. Right south of Grand Teton is a lot of what the state of Wyoming wants in Sublette (County), which is a massive natural gas (field), but they’re also bringing in an enormous amount of money and attracting people because of Grand Teton and Yellowstone.”

Somehow the Antiquity Act, in spite of its detractors, has managed to remain on the books since it was first passed in 1906.

“I’m somewhat amazed, given all of our experiences wrestling with environmental issues in the West, I’m surprised that the Antiquities Act survived as long as it did," Dr. Power said. "But I think that was because there used to be more of a bipartisan coalition that supported parks and protecting natural areas.

"I think Republicans are just feeling their oats. They think they are on the verge of killing Obama, making him a one-term president, and taking back over control of all of the branches of government," he continued. "I think that’s the reason you’re hearing the howling. They just want to make clear that they will do whatever it takes to block any attempt to add even more national monuments."

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Here in Florida, a coalition of civic, environmental and preservation groups and concerned citizens are working towards having a new monument or addition to the Biscayne National Park that includes Virginia Key island and the Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve. What could be better for the tourist economy in a tourist state? More info at Also on Facebook: Friends of Virginia Key.

They are simply supporting the Utah Environmental Ethic: "Multiply, multiply and pillage the Earth."

Economic arguments for parks have been abused and misused time after time and at some point it begins to be a big joke. You will hear politicians and administrators throwing around numbers and while most people don't have the ability to truly understand the numbers, those with a background in economics, and not holding bias, would find them very difficult to believe. Economics is an inexact science, and it is unfortunate to see it being abused for political reasons regardless of the issue.

Very interesting article. It sounds like the gist of the article is that the economic impact from a national monument or park is not so much the tourism dollars, but the fact that the area is attractive and will bring in people to live and work there that would not have had otherwise. So, the locals might lose high paying resource extraction jobs, although not sustainable in the long run (except maybe for logging), the economic impact would be replaced with tourism and the influx of new people looking for a cool place to live. That sounds great but frankly, how many people can really telecommute from anywhere for their jobs on a full time basis?

The other question is: while mining, logging, etc. is not exactly environmentally friendly. If we don't dig our own backyard, where will the raw material come from? Are we better off buying ore from overseas than mining it ourselves? Isn't this slightly hypocritical?

I'm not an expert on the subject obviously, but I'm wondering.


You've got the gist of it. As for how many folks can telecommute, that's just one segment of the overall influx.

The Micron plant is an example of a company that moved to Utah so its employees would be closer to these lands. They're not necessarily within a short walk of the state's national parks and monuments and other recreation areas, but officially designated wilderness in the Wasatch is probably within 30 minutes.

Another example is Black Diamond, the gear manufacturer, which also stands in the morning shadow of the Wasatch Range with its ski areas, backcountry skiing, wilderness, and climbing opportunities.

So it's not all about fueling the economy with telecommuters and burger flippers;-)

All that said, your final point is certainly valid. There does have to be some give and take.


Thos are great examples. Maybe it's more of a slow transition from one economic engine to another one that's more diversified.

I think Dr. Power would do well to stick to economic theory and stay out of politics. His blinding insight on the future of the Republican Party is just that: blinding.

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