By Tom Kenworthy, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress Action Fund.
Members of Congress and other elected officials who’ve been pushing to open millions of acres of protected public lands to commercial development and who doubt the economic value of land conservation and outdoor recreation should have come to the annual International Sportsmen’s Exposition at the Denver Convention Center last weekend.
An annual event that draws huge crowds and this year featured almost 500 exhibitors ranging from trophy elk hunting outfitters to sunglasses purveyors, the Sportsmen’s Expo is a vivid demonstration of the economic power of the great outdoors and protected federal and state lands that sustain local, rural economies across the U.S.
Just ask Jenni Sopsic, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce in Montrose, Colorado. The region around her western Colorado city with a population of around 18,000 people is about three-quarters public land, and includes major recreation and tourist attractions like the San Juan Mountains, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, and the Uncompahgre Plateau. As she greeted visitors to the chamber’s booth at the Sportsmen’s Expo, she stated:
“This is a great market for us.” Public lands have a “substantial economic impact” in Montrose, where the jobs of nearly 1,000 people are directly tied to recreation and tourism.
At a booth located not far away, the town of Moab, Utah was making the same point. A gateway to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks and a recreational haven for mountain bikers, river runners, and hikers eager to explore the red rock canyons of southern Utah, Moab is virtually an advertisement for the economic benefits or land conservation. Nearly three-quarters of the land in Grand County, where Moab is the largest city, is managed by federal government agencies such as the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management. Marian DeLay, executive director of the Moab Area Travel Council, put it this way:
As far as outdoor recreation is concerned, as an economic engine for this community, it’s enormous. We would like to think that everybody in the world knows about Moab, and wants to come to Moab, but the reality is everybody doesn’t.
An economic profile of Grand County, Utah – where Moab is the county seat and largest community – tells the tale. With a population of about 9,500 people, the county has about 1,500 people whose employment is travel and tourism related. Visitors here – nearly 1.5 million a year at Arches and Canyonlands alone — spend more than $100 million a year.
Montrose and Moab aren’t isolated examples, as the Center for American Progress pointed out in a September report titled “The Jobs Case for Conservation.”
As strong as the land conservation economy in the West is, some of the region’s public officials still don’t get it.
Last year, testifying at a hearing before the House Natural Resources Committee, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter reached into his golf bag for his sarcastic iron to mock the notion that federally protected wilderness has much of an economic impact.
“There are more people in one day, probably, that play golf on the floating green in Coeur d’Alene Idaho than visit the Frank Church-River of No Return [Wilderness] in a year,” said Otter, a Republican and former House member.
Fact checkers quickly set Otter straight, pointing out that the Frank Church in 2010 attracted more than 33,000 river runners, elk hunters, and steelhead anglers (a number that does not include thousands of hikers and horseback packers).
Despite that kind of evidence, many Republicans in the House would rather hand over our heritage of protected public lands to corporate interests like the uranium mining industry than protect lands that can provide sustained economic benefits forever.
Responding to a courageous decision by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to impose a 20-year ban uranium mining on a million acres around the Grand Canyon, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) this week nonsensically said the Obama administration had “caved to political pressure from radical special interest groups.”