CREDIT: David J Swift

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

Public lands: a boon for communities in the New West or a bane to our existence?

With the value of nature-related tourism alone worth billions of dollars annually to the regional economy of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, we know the dividends of having national parks, national forests, wildlife refuges, tracts administered by the Bureau of Land Management, and healthy landscapes all around us.

Still, the oft-made assertion advanced by some politicians is that federal public lands are a liability to the wellbeing of rural counties. These same people, including members of Congress, also claim that protected landscapes impinge upon the economic vitality of local communities. And they insist that creation of national monuments by presidents, using authority granted them under the federal Antiquities Act of 1906, are destroying future job prospects, undermining prosperity and preventing folks from making a living.

These are arguments invoked by President Donald Trump—who obviously hasn’t spent much time out here—and by his Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in ordering that 27 national monuments designated since 1996 be placed under review for possible revocation.

A new economic study prepared by analysts with Headwaters Economics challenges the very heart of those contentions.

Far from being economic yokes, public lands, especially those bestowed with higher levels of environmental protection, are actually shown to be huge assets for attracting new residents and job creators. They also foster economic resiliency, as a contrast to the notorious boom and bust cycles of traditional Old West communities wholly dependent on natural resource extraction.

Every three years, Headwaters Economics completes a review of data in different Western states related to the presence of national monuments and has distilled their impacts, positive or negative, down to the local level. Rather than wait until autumn 2017 to complete its latest deep dive into numbers, the renowned data-crunching think tank, based in Bozeman and led by economist Ray Rasker, decided to scrutinize the claims made by the Trump administration and national monument opponents.

The report’s newly released findings titled “The Economic Importance of National Monuments to Communities,” are available free at headwaterseconomics.org and they come replete with interactive maps.

The organization’s communications director, Chris Mehl, who is also by night an elected member of the Bozeman City Commission, says it’s important to separate fact from mythology.

“This latest analysis builds upon lots of other work that has already been done showing that, in general and maybe with only a few exceptions, rural counties in the West with more public lands inside their borders outperform other counties that have a smaller percentage of public lands,” he said.

In 2011, 2014 and again in 2017, Headwaters analyzed the economies surrounding 17 national monuments in 11 Western states that are larger than 10,000 acres and were created between 1982 and 2001. It includes Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah and the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument in Montana.

Local economies surrounding all 17 of the national monuments in the study expanded following monument designation. Population, employment, personal income, and per-capita income in the vast majority of counties increased after monument creation.

In two-thirds of the communities located next to national monuments (13 of 17), those key economic indicators mentioned above grew at the same or a faster pace compared to similar counties in the same state; four counties did experience a slow-down in some of the indicators.

“While the results showing continued growth in nearby communities does not demonstrate a cause-and-effect relationship, the findings show that there is no evidence that the new national monuments prevented economic growth,” the authors concluded.

That’s significant because opponents of national monuments have portrayed pictures of economic devastation resulting from land protection.

In Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante Region, which members of Utah’s Congressional delegation and governor claimed has caused economic calamity and depopulation since President Bill Clinton created a national monument there, facts tell another story.

Between 2001 and 2015, the number of residents grew by 13 percent; real personal income grew by 32 percent; jobs grew by 24 percent, with jobs related to services representing the biggest leap; and real per capita income rose by 17 percent.

Notably, agriculture accounted for just 6 percent of total employment, mining 0.4 percent of total private employment and timber only 0.2 percent.

“One of the largest and fastest growing sources of new personal income in the Grand Staircase-Escalante Region is non-labor income, which is made up of investment income such as dividends, interest and rent, and government transfer payments such as Social Security and Medicare,” Headwaters wrote.

“For people with investment income and many retirees, protected public lands and recreation provide important aspects of a high quality of life. Non-labor income already represents more than a third of all personal income in the West—and will grow as the baby boomer generation retires.”

This, of course, raises many questions that will be explored in future columns.

Todd Wilkinson has been writing his award-winning column, The New West, for nearly 30 years. Living in Bozeman, he is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” about famous Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen, available only at mangelsen.com/grizzly. His profile of Montana politician Max Baucus appears in the summer 2017 issue of Mountain Outlaw and is now on newsstands.