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Why Public Lands and the West Matter Politically and Economically

To the rest of the country, the West is often dismissed as wilderness where the buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope play, to be ventured into only for a weekend of hiking, camping or fishing. But the financial impact of the West—and the growth opportunities that can come from having the mountains and canyons in your backyard—is one not to be understated, said panelists at the 2016 Outdoor Recreation Summer Market.

National parks are a huge draw for tourists, and are huge boons to surrounding areas, said Rob Southwick of Southwick & Associates. In a study conducted by professors at Colorado State and Harvard Universities, 95 percent of respondents believed national parks were worth preserving, and 81 percent said they would be willing to pay more in income tax to prevent cuts to the national parks budget—regardless of whether they had ever visited or planned to visit any national parks, Southwick said.

“It’s the intrinsic value in knowing they’re there, and that their children and grandchildren can go to them, even if they themselves don’t,” he said. “There’s something deeply patriotic for a lot of people, knowing they’re there. They think they’re part of our country and they don’t want to lose them.”

Respondents could also say how much they would be willing to pay per year for 10 years to help keep the national parks afloat. Southwick said the results indicated people nationwide would be willing to pay a total of upwards $92 billion—$28.5 billion from people who visited national parks, and $33.5 billion from people who did not identify as users of the national parks. Southwick contrasted those numbers with the federal budget—$3.1 billion annually—and the amount generated by visitors—$31 billion a year.

Southwick said the results of the study can be used to show lawmakers the value their constituents place on national parks.

Tourism itself can be helpful from an economic development standpoint, said Will Shafroth of the National Park Foundation. With tourists comes an increase in fuel, food and lodging sales, yes, but also a higher demand for better infrastructure. When a place has or gets an airport nearby, “the floodgates open for all industries,” Shafroth said.

One of the major groups to flock to places near public lands is retiring baby boomers, he said, which brings greater demand for money management and healthcare services to an area. And in an age where a company’s headquarters doesn’t necessarily need to be near a big city to do big business, he said, tech companies are relocating to places in the country where the quality of life is high and opportunities for outdoor recreation are just a short drive away.

Public lands can also be protected without shutting down mineral extraction or mining, he said, and gives an area higher economic diversity.

“Protect public lands and you’ll protect the economy,” he said. “It’s the goose that lays the golden egg.”

Numbers are crucial for convincing lawmakers both local and national to protect public lands, said Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters Economics, but putting the numbers into context is also important to effectively deliver their message.

“If you just read a bunch of numbers, you’re going to fail to reach the people you’re trying to reach,” he said. “We’re trying to bring [the numbers] into context.”

Outdoor recreation employs 6.1 million people—twice as many people as are employed in all of Colorado or Arizona, or by McDonald’s. Half of Americans engage in some form of outdoor recreation and spend an average of $4,500 each, making outdoor recreation a $649 billion-a-year industry, which is twice as much as sales of motor vehicles or Walmart annually, Rasker said. And while the taxes from the industry more than make up for the budget put into national parks and public lands, he said, the percentage of the federal budget devoted to those amenities has been on the decline for decades.

“Outdoor recreation is growing. It’s a key part of the industry,” he said. “We’ve already shown we’re bringing in money. We’re paying more than our share.”