Editor's note: This updates with details from a conference call with three of the economists behind the letter.
Western public lands are not only an iconic slice of America's national identity, but also a valuable economic driver if properly protected and managed, according to a group of more than 100 economists and academics who want President Obama and Congress to set aside more public lands as national parks, monuments, and wilderness areas.
Though it might be anathema to some members of Congress who hail from the West, the public landscape carries more value when protected primarily for recreation and not widely opened up to the extractive industries, the group's representatives said Wednesday during a conference call with reporters. Properly managed public lands are good for ecosystems, job creation and sound economies, and attracting the best employees possible, they said.
“These lands -- national parks, wilderness, national forests -- have been among the fastest growing counties and places in the nation," said Dr. Gundars Rudzitis, a professor of economic geography at the University of Idaho. "Now, all places are important to people who live there. But I think we can argue that some places and regions are important to people around the world. The Amazon is one such place, and the American West is another.
“There’s a lot of mythology connected with the West. It’s a special place for people who come from around the world," Dr. Rudzitis continued. "And what makes it special, unlike the other regions of the U.S., are the public lands which comprise a large part of it. And so, we need to basically maintain our national identity through the American West."
In a letter to President Obama, the group urged the president to recognize the economic might that can leveraged through public lands properly managed largely for recreation and preservation. The letter did not, however, suggest specifically that the president turn to the Antiquities Act to protect more lands.
"We’re just saying in general the protection of wilderness areas, national parks, national monuments, is a good economic move," said Dr. Ray Rasker, whose firm, Headwaters Economics of Bozeman, Montana, was the impetus behind the letter. "But we’re not calling on any particular mechanism by which that might happen.”
While copies of the letter were also sent to House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the cause might face stiff opposition in the House, where top Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee have questioned the need, specifically, for more wilderness.
Among those signing the letter were three Nobel Laureates -- Kenneth J. Arrow, Stanford University (Emeritus), Robert M. Solow, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Emeritus), and Joseph Stiglitz, Columbia University.
Dr. Rasker, whose firm has prepared many studies on the economic value of public lands, said federal lands "are one of the West’s most significant competitive advantages. These protected public lands attract companies and workers and they create jobs. So in today’s economy, with the unemployment rate hovering around 9 percent, job creation is very important, and this is one of the ways that we can continue to do this.”
From Colorado College, Dr. Walt Hecox, a professor of economics in the college's environmental program, added that not all protected landscapes need to be off-limits to economic activity beyond recreation. In some national forests where beetles are killing trees, for instance, incentives could be offered for companies to "find creative uses" for the lumber stained blue by the insects, he suggested.
Beyond on-the-ground businesses that could use resources, the landscapes of mountains, forests, rivers, and lakes are magnets for more and more businesses and "foot-loose" entrepreneurs who seek out these landscapes and can set up shop wherever they want, the economists stressed.
"A lot of entrepreneurs and businesses are what we would call, 'foot-loose.' They can move to places that have a high quality of life," said Dr. Rasker. "So if you have a community that is surrounded by spectacular landscapes -- wilderness areas and parks -- companies can move to those areas. And one of the things that we’re seeing is that is how they are recruiting really talented employees. Globally, it’s a rush to see who can get the smartest people to work for them.
“... What we’re saying is that the role of protected public lands, national parks for example, goes far beyond just attracting tourists. It really has become a magnet that attracts businesses and entrepreneurship, and that’s what needs to be added to the (national) dialog right now," he added.
The point also needs to be stressed, Dr. Hecox said, that President Obama is not being asked to add to the public landscape simply for the sake of increasing its acreage, but rather for economic development.
“There’s a large arena of proper management and extension that I think we can be creative in a partnership with the private sector. It isn’t a question of just declaring more public lands as being added to the inventory," he said. "My biggest worry now is the discussion in Congress that we ought to sell off the federal lands to solve the debt. I think that in the frenzy of the election this is the worst possible time to do something that is at the very heart of the Rockies region and has been for many decades.”
While the letter was sent Wednesday, those behind it have not had preliminary discussions with either White House staff or congressional aides to see how it might be received.
President Obama has been hesitant to use the Antiquities Act to add to the national landscape, turning to it earlier this fall for the first time to set aside Fort Monroe National Monument in Virginia, and he might not want to expend his limited political capital to act on the letter.
Too, top Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee have been vocal in their opposition to the president using the Antiquities Act without first getting approval both from residents in areas of the country that would be affected and from Congress.
Nevertheless, those signing the letter believe the economic value to be tapped from federal lands shouldn't be underestimated.
"At the very least we should stop the rhetoric that claims that protected public lands are bad for the economy," said Dr. Rasker. "The academic evidence clearly points out that just the opposite is true, that protected public lands actually create jobs."
November 30, 2011
President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20500
Dear Mr. President,
As economists and academics in related fields, we believe that federal protected public lands are essential to the West's economic future. These public lands, including national parks, wilderness areas and national monuments, attract innovative companies and workers, and are an essential component of the region's competitive advantage.
The West's public lands contribute to our economic well being in a variety of ways, including resource extraction and recreation. These activities can and must coexist with expanding protections for America's world-class natural amenities.
The U.S. is now predominantly a service-based economy, and the fastest-growing regions are those that have been able to attract talented workers, entrepreneurs, and investors across all sectors of the economy. In the West especially, public lands play a pivotal role in attracting and retaining people and businesses. This is the case for all sectors, including manufacturing.
The rivers, lakes, canyons, and mountains found on public lands serve as a unique and compelling backdrop that has helped to transform the western economy from a dependence on resource extractive industries to growth from in-migration, tourism, and modern economy sectors such as finance, engineering, software development, insurance, and health care.
Today, one of the competitive strengths of the West is the unique combination of wide-open spaces, scenic vistas and recreational opportunities alongside vibrant, growing communities that are connected to larger markets via the Internet, highways and commercial air service.
Increasingly, entrepreneurs are basing their business location decisions on the quality of life in an area. Businesses are recruiting talented employees by promoting access to beautiful, nearby public lands. This is happening in western cities and rural areas alike.
Together with investment in education and access to markets, studies have repeatedly shown that protected public lands are significant contributors to economic growth.
America's public lands can be used responsibly while expanding protections for the nation's world-class natural amenities. We urge you to create jobs and support businesses by investing in our public lands infrastructure and establishing new protected areas such as parks, wilderness, and monuments.
Kenneth J. Arrow, Stanford University (Emeritus), Nobel Laureate, California
Robert M. Solow, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Emeritus), Nobel Laureate, Massachusetts
Joseph Stiglitz, Columbia University, Nobel Laureate, New York
HJ Albers, Oregon State University, Oregon
Donna M. Anderson, University of Wisconsin - La Crosse, Wisconsin
Paul Baer, Georgia Institute of Technology, Georgia
Richard Barrett, University of Montana, Montana House of Representatives, Montana
Mimi Larsen Becker, University of New Hampshire, New Hampshire
Frank Benford, Economist, Oregon
Robert P. Berrens, University of New Mexico, New Mexico
William B. Beyers, University of Washington (Emeritus), Washington
Douglas Booth, Marquette University (retired), Wisconsin
Gardner Brown, University of Washington (Emeritus), Washington
Greg Brown, Central Washington University, Washington
Arthur J. Caplan, Utah State University, Utah
David Carrier, Appalachian Regional Commission, District of Columbia
Ken Casavant, Washington State University, Washington
Karen Conway, University of New Hampshire, New Hampshire
Douglas Dalenberg, University of Montana, Montana
Ray Dezzani, University of Idaho, Idaho
Ernest Diedrich, Saint John’s University, Minnesota
Christopher A. Erickson, New Mexico State University, New Mexico
Jon Erickson, University of Vermont, Vermont
Frank L. Farmer, University of Arkansas, Arkansas
Yeganeh H. Farzin, University of California – Davis, California
Paul Ferraro, Georgia State University, Georgia
Nicholas E. Flores, University of Colorado – Boulder, Colorado
Nancy Folbre, University of Massachusetts – Amherst, Massachusetts
David Gallo, California State University – Chico (Emeritus), California
Heidi Garrett-Peltier, University of Massachusetts – Amherst, Massachusetts
Eban Goodstein, Bard Center for Environmental Policy, New York
Neva Goodwin, Tufts University, Massachusetts
Hannah Gosnell, Oregon State University, Oregon
Kyle Gracey, Global Footprint Network, California
Philip Graves, University of Colorado – Boulder, Colorado
Daphne Greenwood, University of Colorado – Colorado Springs, Colorado
Michelle Haefele, Economist, Colorado
Dan Hagen, Western Washington University, Washington
Robin Hahnel, Portland State University, Oregon
Darwin C. Hall, California State University – Long Beach (Emeritus), California
Walt Hecox, Colorado College State of the Rockies Project, Colorado
Steve Henson, Western Washington University, Washington
Taylor Hesselgrave, Economics for Equity and the Environment Network, Oregon
Richard B. Howarth, Dartmouth College, New Hampshire
Ray G. Huffaker, University of Florida, Florida
Nan Jenks-Jay, Middlebury College, Vermont
Harley Johansen, University of Idaho, Idaho
Jerry D. Johnson, Montana State University, Montana
Desmond Jolly, University of California – Davis (Emeritus), California
Sudiksha Joshi, West Virginia University, West Virginia
Frederic B. Jennings Jr., Center for Ecological Economic and Ethical Education, Massachusetts
Jonathan Isham, Jr., Middlebury College, Vermont
Christopher Juniper, CORE, Colorado
Maureen Kilkenny, Economist, Nevada
Chris McGrory Klyza, Middlebury College, Vermont
Richard L. Knight, Colorado State University, Colorado
John A. Laitner, Economic and Human Dimensions Research Associates, Arizona
Megan Lawson, Economist, Montana
David Lewis, University of Puget Sound, Washington
Peter M. Lichtenstein, Boise State University (Emeritus), Idaho
John Loomis, Colorado State University, Colorado
Paul Lorah, University of St. Thomas, Minnesota
Christine Loucks, Boise State University, Idaho
David Marcouiller, University of Wisconsin – Madison, Wisconsin
Wade E. Martin, California State University – Long Beach, California
Mark McBeth, Idaho State University, Idaho
Deirdre N. McCloskey, University of Illinois at Chicago, Illinois
Don McLeod, University of Wyoming, Wyoming
Pete Morton, Economist, Colorado
Brian Murray, Duke University, North Carolina
Don Negri, Willamette University, Oregon
Julie Nelson, University of Massachusetts – Boston, Massachusetts
Peter Nelson, Middlebury College, Vermont
Noelwah Netusil, Reed College, Oregon
Ernie Niemi, Economist, Oregon
Roger Noll, Stanford University (Emeritus), California
Richard B. Norgaard, University of California – Berkeley, California
Mark Partridge, Ohio State University, Ohio
Nate Peach, George Fox University, Oregon
James Pittman, Prescott College, Arizona
Thomas Michael Power, University of Montana, Montana
Ray Rasker, Headwaters Economics, Montana
Robert B. Richardson, Michigan State University, Michigan
Dan Rickman, Oklahoma State University, Oklahoma
Alexander Rist, Economist, King County Department on Natural Resources and Parks, Seattle, Washington
Gundars Rudzitis, University of Idaho, Idaho
Peter Schaeffer, West Virginia University, West Virginia
Douglass Shaw, Texas A&M University, Texas
Kristen Sheeran, Economics for Equity and the Environment Network, Oregon
Nathan Sivers-Boyce, Willamette University, Oregon
Kenneth A. Small, University of California – Irvine, California
Rob Southwick, Southwick Associates, Inc., Florida
Tesa Stegner, Idaho State University, Idaho
David Theobald, Colorado State University, Colorado
George Tolley, University of Chicago (Emeritus), Illinois
Austin Troy, University of Vermont, Vermont
John Tschirhart, University of Wyoming, Wyoming
William Ward, Clemson University, South Carolina
John C. Whitehead, Appalachian State University, North Carolina
John Willoughby, American University, District of Columbia
Randall K. Wilson, Gettysburg College, Pennsylvania
Maggie Winslow, Presidio Graduate School, California
Michael W. "Mick" Womersley, Unity College, Maine
Richard O. Zerbe, University of Washington, Washington
Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid
U.S. Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar
U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack