Economists urge Obama, Congress to protect more public lands

Public lands are a boon for the private sector, attracting companies and workers to the communities that border them, more than 100 economists wrote in a letter to President Obama this week.

Thompson Divide

The letter (pdf) urges the president to invest in the nation’s public lands infrastructure and establish new wilderness, parks and monuments that can create jobs and jump-start the businesses around them.

“The 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,” the letter says. “Increasingly, entrepreneurs are basing their business location decisions on the quality of life in an area. Businesses are recruiting talented employees by promoting access to beautiful, nearby public lands.”

The economists’ message was also delivered to leaders in Congress, who are largely locked in partisan gridlock over issues dealing with the environment with few exceptions, such as the expansion of a wilderness area in San Diego County that shares bipartisan support led by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and the recent passage of the U.S. Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act, which Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) championed for many years.

The Obama administration appears to have gotten the economists’ memo before it was even written, given that U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar issued a report three weeks earlier calling for the declaration of 18 new wilderness and conservation areas in nine Western states. Salazar’s report says they all have “significant local support” and, in Colorado, they include expanded land protections in the McKenna Peak Wilderness Study Area of the San Juan Mountains, the Castle Peak Wilderness Study Area, the Browns Canyon Wilderness Study Area and the Bull Gulch Wilderness Study Area.

To get conservative members of Congress, such as U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colo.), on board will take some convincing. Tipton so far hasn’t tipped his hand on whether he supports the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act or drilling in Thompson Divide, but he has been enthusiastic in rolling back wilderness protections for other public lands, and he previously blasted Salazar’s controversial Wild Lands policy. Like Tipton, Colorado’s other conservative congressmen — Doug Lamborn, Cory Gardner and Mike Coffman — have been rebuked for their environmental records.

Three Nobel Laureates and 10 residents of Colorado are among the scores of economists and academics who signed the public lands letter with the hope of getting U.S. policy-makers’ attention.

“Here in Colorado, our public lands fuel local economies,” said Zeke Hersh, owner of Blue River Anglers in Frisco. “It is only common sense that our elected officials in Congress and the White House protect these places with adequate investment and protections for the clean air, water, wildlife habitat, and open space that lures tourists and small business entrepreneurs to communities like Frisco.”

“Public lands are the identity for our community and thus our businesses,” added Roger Marolt, who operates an accounting firm in Aspen. “They help define who we are and are what attracts vibrant employees, exciting new companies, visitors and consumers to the West. The preservation of federal lands is vital to our economic growth and ensuring existing businesses like mine thrive.”

A recent study commissioned by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (pdf) reports that outdoor recreation supports $289 billion in annual retail sales and services and it supports more than 6.5 million jobs.

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About the Author

Troy Hooper

Troy Hooper covers environmental policy for the American Independent News Network. His work has been published in The Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News, Huffington Post, San Francisco Weekly, Playboy, New York Post, People and dozens of other publications. Hooper has covered the Winter Olympics in Italy, an extreme ski camp in South America and gone behind the scenes with Hunter S. Thompson on election night in 2004. Born and raised in Boulder, Hooper has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of California at Santa Barbara.

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