Salazar: Economic growth more often tied to recreation than to extraction

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar this week said that economic growth in rural areas of the West depends as much or more on recreation than it does on such traditional businesses as mining, logging and ranching.

“Many rural Western economies now rely as much or more on public lands for tourism and recreation, open space, and an increased quality of life, as they do for logging, mining and grazing,” he said.

“As more people move into smaller Western towns, income from the energy, mining, lumber, farming and ranching industries represents a decreasing share of the total personal income in these communities. In one study, it dropped from 20 percent in 1970 to only 8 percent in 2000,” Salazar said.

He made his remarks to the National Landscape Conservation System Summit in Las Vegas on Monday.

Ken Salazar (Photo/Topher Simon, Flickr)

Salazar was U.S. Senator from Colorado before President Obama asked him to take over Interior. Michael Bennet was appointed to fill his Senate seat and earlier this month won a tight race to keep the seat.

Salazar’s comments were made at the signing of a Secretarial Order to elevate the Office of the National Landscape Conservation System and Community Partnerships to the level of a Directorate. The Directorate will have jurisdiction over 27 million acres of public land in the West.

From his speech:

“This action reflects the growing importance of the 27-million acre National Landscape Conservation System to local economies, to the health of communities, and to the conservation of some of America’s greatest landscapes. The BLM plays a special role in protecting America’s great outdoors for the benefit of all Americans – for it is the national conservation lands that contain the forests and canyons that families love to explore, the backcountry where children learn to hunt and fish, and the places that tell the story of our history and our cultures. Each of these places within the National Landscape Conservation System holds special meaning to the American people and is an engine for jobs and economic growth in local communities.”

Salazar praised President Obama for his support for conservation programs in the West and for investing substantial stimulus funds to improving infrastructure on public lands.

President Obama expressed his support for the System in one of the first major actions of his Administration, signing the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act on March 30, 2009. This legislation not only made the system permanent but also added a million acres to it.

Under the President’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, this Administration also has invested an unprecedented $76 million dollars for 187 projects to improve the system.

These construction and rehabilitation initiatives, which are generating more than 800 jobs, includes trail and trailhead improvements, land and watershed restoration, habitat improvements, invasive weed control, and surveys, inventory and monitoring. The investment also funds significant green energy installations in support buildings.

As a matter of fact, new BLM visitor centers are raising the bar for energy-efficient, earth-friendly facilities built to blend into the surrounding environment. The award-winning Red Rock Canyon visitor center just a few miles from here is an example. Built with funding from land sales, it won the 2010 GreenSite Award in the municipal category.

The growth of the National Landscape Conservation System and success of the multiple use approach reflects the shifting demographics of our country in the last century – especially of the last few decades – when the West’s population increased at an astounding rate.

We know that healthy ecosystems and healthy economies are interrelated – and this is especially true for the West.

Protected public spaces can serve as magnets for visitors. Though the System accounts for only 10 percent of the lands BLM manages, its lands are now welcoming more than 9 million visitors a year.

Those 9 million visitors spend money at local motels, grocery stores, and gas stations. They rent bikes and use guide services.

It is worth noting that in 2006, recreationists spent more than $122 billion on their activities. Between travel, equipment, and licenses for activities like fishing and hunting, that is equal to 1% of the nation’s GDP.

Protected lands – and the quality of life they offer – can also help counties attract new residents and business. They are a competitive advantage for the West and, when coupled with solid infrastructure, they can lead to strong economic growth, increased property tax revenue, and attract jobs.

In remote Kane County, Utah, where the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is located, nearly three-fourths of the net growth in personal income in the last 30 years has been from retirement funds, money from past investments, and other “non-labor‟ sources.

Another study of the economic impact of National Landscape Conservation System lands on county economies found that real personal income grew at a rapid pace in the majority of counties adjacent to these units.

These studies demonstrate that protecting public lands can actually help grow and diversify Western rural economies. While public lands cannot, by themselves, ensure prosperous communities, protected lands clearly are a significant part of the new formula for vibrant rural economies.

Salazar also talked about Colorado lands.

There are literally hundreds of examples of how the National Landscape Conservation System balances community needs and supports local economies, and I would like to note a few.

First, an example that is dear to me: The Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in Southwest Colorado. After eight years of planning and considering more than 15,000 public comments, the BLM recently adopted a comprehensive management plan for the monument. It is a solid plan that accommodates the community and the users and protects the precious cultural resources and natural features of the land.

In the Monument, Native American cultural practices, including hunting and livestock grazing, exist side-by-side with a program to protect the highest known density of archaeological sites in the country, spread over more than 180,000 acres of land. The Monument also welcomes hikers, horseback riders and motorized vehicle users.

But, he noted, public lands are not just for recreation.

Currently, about 80 percent (131,000 acres) of Canyon of the Ancients National Monument is leased for fluid minerals development. There are 125 wells, almost 50 percent of them for CO2 production. And all types of lands in the System, except for wilderness areas, may permit power transmission corridors, when appropriate.

To read Salazar’s entire speech, click here.

To see the press release announcing the creation of the Directorate, click here.

Salazar’s office did not quickly return a phone call asking for additional information.

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Scot Kersgaard has been managing editor of a political newspaper, editor and co-owner of a ski town newspaper, executive editor of eight high-tech magazines (where he worked with current Apple CEO Tim Cook), deputy press secretary to a U.S. Senator, and an outdoors columnist at the Rocky Mountain News. He has an English degree from the University of Washington. He was awarded a fellowship to study internet journalism at the University of Maryland's Knight Center for Specialized Journalism. He was student body president in college. He spends his free time hiking and skiing.