Report: Public lands should stay in public hands

Report highlights importance of public lands to economy, Americans

07-02-2013 // Judith Kohler

As the value of our public lands becomes increasingly clear to the public, businesses and  policy makers, a minority persists in attempts to undermine this unique legacy through proposals to sell the lands that belong to all Americans or roll back protections for special places that support fish and wildlife habitat, recreation and tourism.

Public Lands Report cover

A new report by the National Wildlife Federation highlights recent data on the importance – economically, environmentally and socially – of conserving our public lands, the bulk of which are in the West.  The report "Valuing our Western Public Lands: Safeguarding Our Economy and Way of Life" explores how the public and businesses support conserving our open spaces. The lifestyle made possible by the national parks, forests and remote backcountry is an advantage in recruiting businesses and workers.

Yet attacks are mounting on these public lands in the form of state and federal proposals to get rid of them, turn them over to the states or escalate drilling and mining while weakening safeguards. The report looks at the proposals and suggests ways the public can counter them.

"Public lands should remain in public hands, and we must protect what belongs to all Americans. This report makes abundantly clear how much Americans value our public lands and how much these lands give us,’’ said Larry Schweiger, National Wildlife Federation president and CEO.

Here is a sampling of the studies and surveys highlighted in the report:

  • The outdoor recreation industry, including fishing and hunting, contributes nearly $650 billion to the U.S. economy and supports more than 6 million jobs.
  • The West is outperforming the rest of the country in job creation, personal income, and population growth. A draw for the region is its protected federal lands, such as national parks, monuments and other public lands.

"The hunting, fishing and recreation supported by public lands help sustain local economies across the country," said Ann Morgan, executive director of NWF’s Rocky Mountains and Prairies Regional Center. "In addition, the large stretches of land found in the West provide clean water sources, intact fish and wildlife habitat and the special places where we can reconnect with nature."

Bison herd

The economy in the West is changing from one dominated by natural-resource production to one driven by knowledge- and service-based industries. Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet has met with business leaders from his state about the role that conserving public lands plays in enhancing the business climate.

“Our conservation efforts are important – not only to protect our land, air and water but from a business perspective as well,” Bennet said.  “This report demonstrates that our public lands are a valuable asset and are helping boost the economy in Western states, whether it’s a rafting company in Buena Vista that relies on a healthy stream of tourists or a high-tech company in Boulder that’s able to better recruit top-level talent because of our state’s high quality of life. Colorado's attractive lifestyle and abundant open space has given us a competitive edge. It’s incredibly important that we are taking steps to ensure that we are preserving these priceless resources.”

Kent Salazar of Albuquerque, N.M, a National Wildlife Federation board member, said maintaining our public lands is critical “to the health of our people, our economy, our communities and the land and water on which we all depend.”

"My family has hunted and fished for generations in Rio Grande del Norte," Salazar added. "Many people for many years worked to see that this area in northern New Mexico is protected and it has finally been designated as a national monument. Rio Grande del Norte and other public lands like it are important to our economy, our way of life and our identity."

Appreciation of the West’s special places and concern for their future aren’t limited to the region.

"Most of our larger tracts of publicly owned forests, parks and wilderness areas are in the West. These public lands are the storehouses of our natural resources and refuges for our wildlife as well as ourselves. These lands will become important as our country grows," said Robert Brown, a member of the North Carolina Wildlife Federation board and recently retired dean of the College of Natural Resources at North Carolina State University.

grand canyon north rim

"For the past 35 years, my family has experienced some of the best and most pristine backcountry areas our country has to offer – Paintbrush Divide at 10,500 feet in the Tetons and in Montana, where we caught big cutthroat trout on dry flies in the Lewis and Clark National Forest,’’ said Ed Perry of Boalsburg, Pa. "These experiences gave us a taste of what our country once was. Efforts to roll back protections for these lands or, worse yet, sell the lands are bad for wildlife and those of us who enjoy the outdoors."

Despite calls to sell large swaths of public lands or weaken protections, a majority of the Rocky Mountain region’s voters support conserving the lands and better enforcement of environmental safeguards.  A bipartisan survey by Colorado College found that 67 percent of voters in the Rockies oppose selling public lands and more than 90 percent of Utah voters see public lands as essential to the state’s economy.

A Utah law demands that the federal government turn over nearly 20 million acres of public land to the state by the end of 2014. Opponents say the law is unconstitutional.

"I’m not surprised that most Utahns think our public lands are a valuable resource and shouldn’t be sold off as some of our politicians are promoting. The great landscapes, the wildlife and recreation draw professionals and creative people from across the country," said Ty Markham, a former educator who moved to Utah for college there and now owns a bed and breakfast in Torrey where she serves on the town council.

"Westerners see the permanent protection of their public lands as an economic imperative, and essential to their quality of life," said Walt Hecox, Colorado College economist and State of the Rockies Project faculty director. "Decision makers would do well to take notice and cure the often one-sided tendency to pursue development rather than protection that we've seen emerge over the last four years."

Read the full report here and For additional information on Western public lands, go to the Public Lands page.

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