Excerpted from High Country News
I spent a week last month backpacking and packrafting in and around Utah’s new Bears Ears National Monument. But even while I paddled the silty San Juan River and hiked under blue skies up Cedar Mesa, I worried about the future of Bears Ears National Monument and the state’s other stunning public lands, as well as the rural communities that adjoin those public lands.
I thought about Utah’s elected Republican leaders, led by Rep. Rob Bishop, Gov. Gary Herbert and Sen. Orrin Hatch, and asked myself: Are they deliberately misleading their constituents about the economic and social consequences of stripping away protections for our public lands? BREAK But that conclusion requires a degree of cynicism about our republic that I have not yet reached — at least not while enjoying our wild country.
Perhaps these politicians truly believe that sacrificing our public lands to development or private ownership will bring back the rural prosperity of yesteryear. If so, they are deluded.
The anti-public lands stance of Bishop and his adherents already shut down a major economic engine when it caused the Outdoor Retailer show to pull out of Salt Lake City after a nearly 20-year run. This resulted in a loss to the state of around $45 million annually.
What’s the encore? Will Utah’s high-paying outdoor gear companies, such as Black Diamond, Petzl and many others, respond to consumer pressure and abandon Utah for new homes that are friendlier to outdoor recreation and the nation’s public lands?
We moved closer to that scenario on April 26, when Donald Trump signed Executive Order 13792, which initiated a process that looks like it will eliminate, shrink or reduce protection for Bears Ears and more than two dozen other national monuments.
Valley of the Gods within Bears Ears National Monument.
Yet the evidence is overwhelming that monuments and other protected public land actually contribute to the prosperity of rural communities. Just check out the website of Headwaters Economics. Several factors explain why counties rich in public land fare better economically, but two stand out.
First, the West’s most economically successful counties prosper by attracting businesses, entrepreneurs, skilled workers, investors, retirees, tourists and recreational visitors who value public land. Outdoor recreation assets, most often in the form of trails and unscarred public land, are generally the most important amenity a county can offer, and such assets are also among the easiest to provide with local investment.
Second, despite his bluster, Trump cannot return rural America to the type of economic prosperity that past generations enjoyed. Those were the decades when mining, oil and gas production, logging, milling and manufacturing provided steady, high-paying jobs to people right out of high school. Those rural-job generators have long been in decline due to automation, global competition and many other factors.
I can find no credible evidence that good stewardship of our public land impairs the economies of Western rural communities. But such economic fantasies obstruct realistic action to advance prosperity, which depends upon good schools and vibrant downtowns as well as outdoor recreation and access to public lands.
Of course, there are uncertainties. Can San Juan County, the home of Bears Ears National Monument, develop a balanced economy while avoiding the excessive tourism and commercial growth that characterizes nearby Moab? I think the answer is yes. Across the country, many rural communities have shown that it is possible to balance recreation-based economic opportunity with protection of local values.
Luther Propst is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He founded and ran the Sonoran Institute for 21 years and now chairs the board of the Outdoor Alliance. He lives in Jackson, Wyoming.