National parks have more to offer than gas — why won’t the government protect them?
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Making a living off the land used to be limited to taking something away from it, like coal, oil, gas or timber — and the Bureau of Land Management that green lights project on public lands still sees it that way. But today our public lands are bringing long-term sustained growth to rural economies, while simultaneously protecting America’s best idea: our national parks. 

Last year alone, 330 million visitors experienced the wonder of our parks and historic sites, contributing nearly $35 billion to the U.S. economy. Outdoor recreation, in general, has hit $887 billion, and will now be counted as a portion of the nation’s gross domestic product.

The outdoor recreation industry is changing the way America does business. Recreation assets play an increasingly important role in mainstream business development and economic renewal in cities and rural areas. Proximity to protected open spaces makes for desirable places to live and work. In the 2016 Deloitte Millennial Survey, work/life balance outranked career progression for the majority of millennials. 

Corporations are using the quality of life that results from access to the outdoors as a key tool for recruiting and retaining staff. Entrepreneurs who can be located wherever they please are doing just that, and retirees are bringing significant non-labor income to communities with high-quality outdoor amenities.

Communities that used to depend on the coal, oil, gas and timber now have an opportunity to supplement those revenue sources by investing in access to recreation assets. The opposite of a commodity is a branded product — a name, a feeling, a lifestyle. Communities who have created brands for themselves are attracting both visitors and businesses, who in turn use the town’s brand to attract key talent. And those communities next to national parks or a monument are finding themselves with a built-in brand.

But poorly planned energy development could threaten these communities. Just last month in Utah, Zion National Park was being threatened by oil and gas leases on its doorstep. Local voices including the Washington County commissioners, the governor and some 40,000 members of the public convinced the Bureau of Land Management to pull these leases. Really they should never have been offered in the first place.

We are at a key moment in the evolution of public lands. There was a time when cheap energy was the best way to attract business investment, but in the 21st century attracting and retaining residents and employees is what keeps economies healthy. Allowing industrial development to mar the iconic landscapes of our national parks is like burning the Mona Lisa to heat the house for an hour.

Drilling outside of Zion would threaten Utah’s $12 billion outdoor recreation economy, not to mention inhibit recruitment of businesses like Goldman Sachs and Adobe, who have chosen Utah because of the opportunities to get into the great outdoors.

On June 22 the bureau will decide whether to allow oil and gas development at the entrance to Dinosaur National Monument in Uintah County, Utah. This region is working hard to recover from today’s low oil and gas prices and has all kinds of opportunities to diversify its economy through attracting both visitors and new businesses. But leasing parcels right up to the edge of Dinosaur National Monument will only discourage investment in needed recreation infrastructure and make business recruitment that much harder. If we aren’t protecting the national park experience, how can we hope to protect the various bike trails, ATV routes and river sections that are bringing new revenue to the region?

But it doesn’t end with Dinosaur National Monument — Canyonlands, Chaco Canyon, Capitol Reef, Carlsbad Caverns, Mesa Verde and Zion National Parks are all threatened by oil and gas leases on adjacent lands. Those lands that contain recreation opportunities that are critical to local economies. These parks and the lands around them are economic drivers that can help communities weather the boom and bust of oil and gas.

In the West, we lose a football field’s worth of natural areas to human development every two and a half minutes. There are over 14 million acres of undrilled lands already leased for oil and gas across our country. As local governments and businesses increasingly benefit from land in its natural state, the Bureau of Land Management needs to acknowledge that resource extraction is no longer the only way to make a living off the land. Tying up more land in oil and gas leases inhibits diversification and threatens both our national parks and the communities that depend on them. 

Ashley Korenblat is CEO of cycling tour company Western Spirit Cycling and managing director of Public Land Solutions a recreation planning advocacy group.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.