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Making better choices about our public lands

Making better choices about our public lands
© Courtesy of Stephen Trimble / www.stephentrimble.net

There is a macro-economic trend pulsing through the economy and rural America is uniquely positioned to reap the benefits. Outdoor recreation is no longer just a business segment, but rather a growing indicator of a community’s prospects for prosperity. 

Public land communities have long benefited from easy access to the great outdoors. Employers, large and small, are using quality of life characterized by public access to natural places, to attract and retain employees at all levels. The investments these corporations and entrepreneurs are making in rural cities and towns are the key to a just transition for communities working to move away from coal and oil and gas.

The pandemic has accelerated demand for outdoor access as outdoor equipment from bikes to climbing harnesses fly off the shelves and outdoor participation skyrockets. Studies continue to highlight the benefits of time spent in natural places, and the outdoor industry is working to welcome this increase in participation.

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Rural America’s access to public lands provides a cost-effective strategy for states seeking to benefit from this enduring trend. Recreation assets, such as trails, rivers, lakes and canyons with opportunities for all types of outdoor recreation are playing a growing role in the economic development strategies of many cities and towns. Plus, the public investment is being matched and leveraged by private contributions, providing an unbeatable return.  

Corporations from West Virginia to Arkansas are investing in access to beautiful views and clean air, along with biking and hiking trails, as part of their commitments to their home regions. Walmart is working to compete with Moab by making Bentonville, Ark., a bike mecca, and Intuit recently announced a $25 million dollar gift to fund “innovative new programs to ignite West Virginia’s economy, develop world-class recreational infrastructure and expand outdoor educational opportunities.” These corporations have determined that access to the outdoors is the best strategy for attracting and retaining the talent they need to prosper.

Proactive states are partnering with federal and state land managers to support recreation access through trail systems, boat docks and river parkways to name just a few. To succeed in this work requires some important choices — because ultimately no one wants to recreate in a place with bad air, industrial truck traffic or marred view sheds. To take maximum advantage of these changing times, we must acknowledge the role public lands play in providing quality of life and climate stability by updating the processes we use to decide how America’s public lands will be used and managed. 

With the exception of our national and state parks, resource extraction has historically been the default use of our public lands. In the past, oil, gas and coal have all played a vital role in America’s economy. Historically, affordable and ubiquitous electricity was critical for growing revenues, but today our needs have changed as we work to live sustainably and stop releasing carbon. 

The current oil and gas leasing system on public land no longer meets our changing needs. Just look at Moab, Utah, where the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) procedures allowed leases to be proposed right on top of the world famous Slickrock Trail, a bucket list attraction for both mountain bikes and off-highway vehicles (OHV). Local elected officials from the progressive mayor of Moab to the Republican governor of Utah, worked together to defer those leases. And just a few months later the BLM followed up with another round of leases totaling 110,000 acres just north of Canyonlands National Park, all proposed by a single developer from Minnesota. Again, our elected officials had to explain that these lands were much more valuable to Utah as places to camp, ride and climb than they would be tied up for decades in oil leases.

There is a direct connection between job creation and healthy landscapes. Our public land system needs to grow and change with our changing needs. The Biden administration has a historic opportunity to reform oil and gas leasing as one of the many ways we can maintain and grow access to land in its natural state. Our public lands have long been a defining characteristic of American prosperity and stand to play a new role as we all work towards the next critical chapter in our future.

Ashley Korenblat is CEO of Western Spirit Cycling and a managing director at Public Land Solutions, a non-profit recreation economy consultant.