My wife and I recently ventured from our home in Montana on a two-week road trip to the Southwest. The excursion took us deep into Utah’s majestic canyon country and the West’s ongoing clash over our federal public lands, a conflict most recently inflamed by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s recommendation to shrink a number of national monuments.
While the environmental, social, and political issues around these fights remain contentious, one thing has become abundantly clear: Strong public lands protections fuel thriving economies.
Our first stop was Salt Lake City, which was coming to terms with the decision by the Outdoor Retailer trade show — known as “OR” — to relocate its annual event to Denver after 20 years in Salt Lake City. The move was in response to Utah’s state and federal officials repeatedly lobbying to reduce regulations on federal public lands and give control to state government.
Outdoor clothing and gear manufacturers, whose customers recreate on those lands, strongly oppose this agenda and decided to decamp. The trade show’s relocation will pull $45 million annually from the local economy and has tarnished both the city’s and the state’s image.
Advocates for the transfer of public lands clearly expect states would provide less environmental protection and would allow increased mining, drilling and clearcutting. While relaxed regulations may benefit specific companies in the short-term, those activities undermine the land’s value in other ways. Citizens are waking up to the greater economic benefits of safeguarding public lands and waters.
Support for preserving these public assets was abundant in Salt Lake City, mostly in the form of signs and T-shirts reading “Save Bears Ears,” in reference to the newly established National Monument which Zinke reportedly has recommended reducing in size. This was the big city, full of tech entrepreneurs and weekend warriors, not the folks whose jobs and lives are more traditionally entwined with the fates of mines, wells and timber companies.
As we continued into rural southern Utah, I suspected the displays in favor of public lands would dwindle. I was wrong.
As we drove twisting back roads between the small towns around Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, displays supporting public lands only intensified. I saw posters in shop windows, bumper stickers on cars, and hand-painted yard signs. Multiple businesses posted petitions urging Utah politicians to not kill the golden goose that has invigorated these communities during recent decades. And T-shirts made by the Bear Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition demonstrated support from Native Americans whose past is documented on canyon walls throughout the monument.
Locals clearly see the benefits of protection dwarfing those from extractive non-renewable uses, and the research agrees. It isn’t just gear manufacturers who benefit from healthy public lands. Local economies do, too.
The nonprofit research organization Headwaters Economics has studied this issue extensively and drawn clear conclusions. Rural communities with more federal and protected lands consistently perform better economically than their neighbors. Importantly, that economic growth is not one-dimensional. According to Headwaters, these lands are “an important economic asset that extends beyond tourism and recreation to attract people and businesses,” supporting broad-based community development.
None of this is news to Montanans. Our state has developed a nationally recognized pro-entrepreneur culture that grows from its commitment to environmental health. Montanans value our lands so much that when they got together in the 1970s to rewrite the state Constitution, they created a specific chapter enshrining the citizens’ right to a "clean and healthful environment."
Recently, Montana’s governor announced the creation of an Office of Outdoor Recreation to better support outdoor businesses and, by extension, the lands on which they depend. According to a study by the Outdoor Industry Association, outdoor recreation in Montana produced $7.1 billion in consumer spending last year, 71,000 direct jobs, $2.2 billion in wages and salaries and $286 million in state and local tax revenue, making it one of the state’s top economic sectors by any measure.
And that’s just one industry. Many others depend, directly or indirectly, on the natural landscape.
In Montana, Utah and across the West, efforts to open public lands to greater resource extraction are being met with an increased awareness about the threat that agenda poses. Robust public lands protections don’t just benefit the environment; they serve people, local businesses, and the economies on which we all depend.
Drew Callaghan is the Outreach Specialist for the American Independent Business Alliance, He resides in Missoula.