Western Governors’ Association Supports The Conservation Economy, Utah Republicans Attempt To Undermine It

By Tom Kenworthy, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress Action Fund.

While many congressional Republicans from the West have spent much of 2011 working to undermine land conservation efforts, gut environmental protections, and promote reckless energy and mining developments, western governors have quietly launched a positive agenda to bolster their region’s economy by supporting recreation and tourism.

Led by Chairwoman Gov. Christine Gregoire (D-WA), the Western Governors’ Association is pushing a “Get Out West!” initiative that builds on the region’s most sustainable source of economic vitality: its wide open spaces, protected lands and waters, and endless recreational opportunities. “We in the West have a God-given asset to show the rest of the country and the world,” Gregoire said in an address earlier this month to the Outdoor Industry Association. She continued:

The Western Governors’ Association is working with a wide range of outdoor recreation businesses and organizations to measure the many ways that western states benefit from all types of outdoor recreation – especially in rural communities. I can’t overstate how much rural communities could use the jobs that would come with more people seeking recreation.

Gregoire understands the importance of economic sectors that are sustainable over time, that only grow if we take care of western natural resources and steer boom and bust extractive industries like oil and gas to those areas where it is appropriate and can be done responsibly.

The huge economic and job creation potential from recreation, land conservation, and restoration of degraded lands was highlighted in a recent Center for American Progress report, “The Jobs Case for Conservation.” The report identified 15 government policies that could spur job creation through conservation and restoration.

And the economic value of sound conservation policies is well understood by the huge industry that underpins outdoor recreation and contributes $730 billion a year to the U.S. economy and supports 6.5 million jobs, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. Recreation and tourism at the Department of the Interior alone supported 388,000 jobs in 2010.

Recreation industry leaders are serving as advisers to the western governors’ Get Out West! initiative, and battling efforts by congressional Republicans to undermine sensible conservation policies.

In an August letter to Utah’s governor and congressional delegation, for example, leaders of that state’s $4 billion a year outdoor recreation industry strongly protested efforts to cut federal funding for land conservation, block the president’s authority to create new national monuments, and strip protections against development from some 43 million acres of western land.

Those bills, the industry representatives wrote, are:

[A] significant threat to the values shared by many Utahans, including clean air, clean water, wildlife, and love for our spectacular outdoors and our outdoor recreation opportunities…[and] could also have negative impacts on the long-term viability of our industry and local economies across Utah.

In a pointed reminder, the outdoor industry leaders said it was “ironic” that congressional debate on those measures was taking place shortly after the industry wrapped up its summer trade show in Salt Lake City, a $23 million windfall for the state’s largest city. “We would like to emphasize that it is Utah’s spectacular wild lands and outdoor recreation opportunities that keep our industry coming back to Salt Lake City twice a year for its massive trade shows,” the letter said.

Eight years ago, the OIA threatened to move its trade show after then-Gov. Michael Leavitt cut a back-door deal with the Bush administration to remove interim wilderness protections for 2.6 million acres of federal land in Utah.

The OIA eventually backed off that threat. Maybe reviving it will knock some sense into Utah politicians and help them follow the lead of Gregoire and the Western Governors’ Association.

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