How public lands fuel our economy
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One of America's greatest assets is our natural patrimony, with national parks and monuments, wildlife preserves, scenic rivers, and national forests containing some of the nation's most visited and treasured landscapes. However, beauty is not the only value of these places. They also provide significant and often overlooked economic benefits to surrounding communities and to the country at large.


Data show that protected spaces put money in the coffers of U.S. businesses, municipalities, families and individuals — and that these gains are sustained over time. The Outdoor Industry Association's most recent report, in 2012, noted that consumers spent $646 billion on outdoor recreation, an economic sector that supports more than 6 million jobs. This includes gear, travel and costs associated with camping, snow sports, mountain biking and other activities, as well as professional guides for hunting, fishing and river trips.

In a letter to President Obama a year earlier, more than 100 economists and Nobel laureates called public lands "essential to the West’s economic future" and noted that "national monuments [and other public lands] attract innovative companies and workers and are an essential component of the region's competitive advantage."

And just last month, 100 business owners signed a letter urging Oregon Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenPlaintiff and defendant from Obergefell v. Hodges unite to oppose Barrett's confirmation Senate Democrats call for ramped up Capitol coronavirus testing House Democrats slam FCC chairman over 'blatant attempt to help' Trump MORE (D) to protect the Owyhee Canyonlands. In Wyden's state alone, outdoor recreation generates $12.8 billion annually in consumer spending and supports 141,000 jobs.

In an attempt to make this economic benefit more transparent, Sens. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenGOP coronavirus bill blocked as deal remains elusive Justice indicts two members of ISIS 'Beatles' cell ISIS militants expected to be sent to US for prosecution: report MORE (D-N.H.) and Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerTrump expressed doubt to donors GOP can hold Senate: report The Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 spending wars | Biden looks to clean up oil comments | Debate ratings are in Democrats seek to block appeal of court ruling ousting Pendley, BLM land plans MORE (R-Colo.) introduced a bill Oct. 29 that would require the Commerce Department to submit a report to Congress by the end of next year detailing the value of outdoor recreation to the U.S. economy.

It's an important and multifaceted issue. Numerous studies have shown that public lands increase property values and enhance local tax revenue; for example, research published in 2004 found that residential land prices near Vermont's Green Mountain National Forest were nearly 19 percent higher in townships with designated wilderness than in those that had none. Tracking outward from the wilderness boundary, land prices fell 0.33 percent for each 0.6 mile a property was from that line. So if a parcel abutting the wilderness was priced at $300,000, an identical one six miles away would be priced at $291,207. Another study published in 2010 by Active Living Research, an initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, found that homes in Portland, Ore. that were located within 1,500 feet of natural forest areas had, on average, market values $10,648 higher than similar homes outside that distance.

As the data indicate, many people enjoy outdoor recreation and want to live near places that make it easy to get outside and play. They also want the cleaner air and water typically found in and around areas that have no industrial activity. And they want scenic views.

But what may be surprising is that these areas also stimulate job growth. Research by the independent nonprofit Headwaters Economics found that, in the Western United States, non-metropolitan counties in which more than 30 percent of the land was federally protected experienced job growth of 345 percent over the past 40 years. Similar counties with no protected federal public lands increased employment by only 83 percent.

The same study found that, in 2010, per capita income in Western non-metropolitan counties with at least 100,000 acres of protected public lands was, on average, $4,360 higher than in similar counties with no protected public lands.

All of this is in addition to the natural benefits that protected lands and waters provide to nearby residents and to all of us — including filtering air and water, storing carbon, and minimizing coastal erosion. The Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont estimates the value of these benefits at more than $240 billion annually.

It's no wonder, then, that three out of four Westerners believe our public lands help attract high-quality employers and good jobs to their states, according to a bipartisan survey in 2013. The survey also found that 79 percent of voters agreed that public lands support their economies and enhance their quality of life.

In short, public lands provide an economic boon to individuals, businesses and governments throughout the country, and offer millions of Americans the opportunity to spend time in some of the most scenic places in the world.

That's a view worth savoring.

Reichert is executive vice president of the Pew Charitable Trusts and leads its environment work.