Babbling brooks and bottom lines

Conservationists take notice of how economic studies drive public-land decisions

Some conservationists are seeking broader economic-impact studies of public lands beyond the economic benefits from tourism and outdoor recreation. Other economic developers worry those studies could set up a conflict between protecting lands and traditional multi-use policies that allow some natural-resource development. Anglers wait for some nibbles while relaxing on a bank of the San Juan River downstream from the Navajo Dam with a natural-gas well behind them. Enlarge photo

Jerry McBride/Durango Herald

Some conservationists are seeking broader economic-impact studies of public lands beyond the economic benefits from tourism and outdoor recreation. Other economic developers worry those studies could set up a conflict between protecting lands and traditional multi-use policies that allow some natural-resource development. Anglers wait for some nibbles while relaxing on a bank of the San Juan River downstream from the Navajo Dam with a natural-gas well behind them.

As natural-gas and shale oil drilling continues to sweep the nation, the economic benefits that follow, in the form of jobs, tax revenue and economic investment, are making headlines of their own.

At 3.3 percent, North Dakota’s unemployment rate is the lowest in the nation because of the boom in Bakken shale-oil production while natural-resource development fueled a 105 percent increase in Colorado’s the state’s severance tax revenues in 2011, according to a 2012 report by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Yet at the same time, conservation-minded organizations have been stepping up with their own numbers to show the value of protecting and preserving wide-open spaces in the West.

“We used to say public lands were for resource development and tourism,” said Ray Rasker executive director of Headwaters Economics, a nonpartisan research group that produced one of the studies. “Now we are saying that resource development and tourism are still there, but now people want to live next to these places. It determines where people locate their businesses, for example.”

Reports released during the last year have highlighted the amount of money Americans spend on outdoor recreation, the correlation between public lands and per-capita income and public opinion about the economic benefits of public lands, all in an effort to get people to take another look at the value of these areas.

“My general take is that both analyzing economic effects and monetary value of many specific uses of public lands has really increased in last few years, most recently we’ve seen that a lot with recreation,” said Jimbo Buickerood, public lands coordinator with the nonprofit San Juan Citizens Alliance. “There’s been a lot of work to try to understand the monetary value of all aspects, for example what’s a square mile of intact forest in a watershed worth to a community?”

A study released in January by Headwaters Economics attempted to answer that question from one angle. The study calculated the amount of per-capita income explained by protected federal lands in non metropolitan Western counties.

In La Plata County, the study found that $2,419 or about 5 percent of annual individual income can be attributed to the presence of protected public lands, but in other counties such as Hindsdale and San Juan counties the number ranges from 24 to 29 percent.

The Outdoors Association took another angle, calculating that outdoor recreation generates $646 billion annually in consumer spending.

In a study released in February, a poll released by Colorado College found that 91 percent of Western voters said national parks, forests, monuments and wildlife areas are an essential part of their state’s economy.

“Westerners see the permanent protection of their public lands as an economic imperative, and essential to their quality of life,” Colorado College economist and State of the Rockies Project faculty director Walt Hecox said in a news release. “Decision makers would do well to take notice and cure the often one-sided tendency to pursue development rather than protection.”

Locally, a group of retired National Park Service employees who opposed the natural-gas and oil leasing of more than 12,000 acres in Southwest Colorado brought up the economic impact generated by tourism at Mesa Verde National Park, which totaled $41.3 million in 2010.

Drilling would impact air quality and the visual appeal of landscape near the park, the letter said.

While tending toward a bias favoring conservation-oriented policies, studies done by entities such as Headwaters Economics or the like-minded Sonoran Institute that aim to comprehensively evaluate the economic impact of protected public lands serve a unique purpose, said Gabe Presler, a managing partner with Rural Planning Institute, a local consulting firm. Companies such as RPI tend to look at confined areas and in many of those cases it’s hard to make an economic case for conserving an area versus opening it to mining or drilling, for instance, Presler said.

“With a really high value commodity there’s no way a wilderness designation is going to win,” he said. It takes an entity such as Headwaters to do these types of broad, big-picture studies because there aren’t clients out there who request such expansive research, Presler said.

But recent studies seem to have a drawback in appearing to pose a stark choice between public-lands conservation and resource development, said Roger Zalneraitis, director of the La Plata Economic Development Alliance.

So far, La Plata County has been able to strike a compromise between protection and development, but as more reports come out stating the economic value of not drilling in a certain area, for example, “we’re setting ourselves up for a clash,” Zalneraitis said.

“I want to know who is doing the studies of how to make the two work together?”

ecowan@durangoherald.com

Adam Landis and his wife, Karen, from Daytona Beach, Fla., gear up with a gas well behind them before heading down to the quality fishing waters below the Navajo Dam on the San Juan River. How much is public lands worth to a local economy? Conservationists say past economic-impact studies undervalue their worth. Enlarge photo

Jerry McBride/Durango Herald

Adam Landis and his wife, Karen, from Daytona Beach, Fla., gear up with a gas well behind them before heading down to the quality fishing waters below the Navajo Dam on the San Juan River. How much is public lands worth to a local economy? Conservationists say past economic-impact studies undervalue their worth.