Natural Dividends: Wildland Protection and the Changing Economy of the Rocky Mountain West

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The western United States is known for its vast expanses of open space and remote wildlands, from broad prairies to sagebrush scrub, twisting canyons and rugged mountain peaks. Most of these wild landscapes are public lands, held in common ownership by all Americans-a status that has helped keep them wild in the face of considerable pressure to develop the natural resources found there.

With the economic diversification of the Rocky Mountain West over the past several decades, continued healthy economies in many of the region's communities depend on protecting natural resources rather than only on exploiting them. Resource extraction, such as the current boom in oil and gas drilling in the region, should only happen at the right pace and with appropriate safeguards to protect the West's wildlands, clean air and water, abundant wildlife and healthy communities.

This report provides a snapshot of the economic trends that have shaped the contemporary Rocky Mountain West (Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming), and describes key economic indicators associated with the growth and diversification of rural Rocky Mountain economies. Understanding these key economic indicators is particularly important in light of the frenzy of oil and gas development that is currently threatening public wildlands and natural amenities in the Rockies, and hence the competitive economic advantage of the region.

Report highlights

In this report, we synthesize recent research from economists and other scientists to provide a new picture of the economy of the contemporary Rocky Mountain West. This picture-broader and more accurate than the commonly held view that the region's economy is heavily dependent on resource extraction-recognizes the full value of protected public lands in ensuring sustainable economic development. Key findings and conclusions of the report include the following:

  • Protected public lands produce measurable benefits in terms of employment and personal income for communities in the Rocky Mountains. Research has shown that real per capita income in isolated rural counties with protected land grows faster than in isolated counties without any protected lands.
  • Key economic indicators that signal both a change in the West's economy and the health of specific communities include the rapidly expanding professional and service sectors, the increasingly important role that hunting, fishing, recreation and tourism play in the region, the rise of small businesses and other entrepreneurial endeavors, and the growing economic importance of retirees. All of these important economic sectors directly or indirectly benefit from protecting public wildlands.
  • The professional and service sectors have been growing in importance in the Rocky Mountains, accounting for over 30% of total personal income in 2005. This sector is very diverse - encompassing a wide range of both entry-level and high wage occupations.
  • Outdoor recreation, hunting, fishing and tourism are important components of western economies. Hunters, anglers and wildlife watchers spend over $7 billion annually in the Rocky Mountain States. Non-motorized outdoor recreation generated over $22 billion in economic activity in the Rocky Mountain States in 2006. Sustaining public wildlands for the fish, wildlife and recreation opportunities sought by these recreationists is a wise investment for western communities.
  • Entrepreneurs bring jobs and income to the region and have been found to be an important indicator of an area's overall economic health and potential future prosperity.
  • Retirees and other residents with investment income represent one of the top "industries" in the region, with their income making up nearly one-quarter of total personal income in 2005. Retirees moving to the Rockies are attracted to the natural amenities provided by public land.
  • Extractive-industry income in the Rocky Mountain economy has declined in the last 30 years, with oil and gas extraction accounting for just 1.3 percent of total personal income in the region in 2005.

This analysis shows how the West's people and communities have come to depend on the region's natural amenities-the clean air and water, quality outdoor recreation, hunting and fishing opportunities-suggesting a need for a more comprehensive approach to evaluating land management in the American West. Accordingly, we map out an approach that communities can use to encourage the sustainable growth of their economies without destroying the natural amenities on which those economies-and the community's quality of life-have come to depend. Our recommendations include:

  • Improve the socioeconomic impact analysis in public land management plans by
  1. incorporating an analysis of historic trends in jobs and personal income-including trends in retirement and other non-labor sources of income,
  2. addressing the direct and indirect role protected public lands play in the regional economy,
  3. accounting for the economic importance of the recreation, hunting and fishing that occurs on public land,
  4. using estimates of economically recoverable quantities of oil and gas resources and
  5. fully accounting for the hidden costs associated with oil and gas drilling.
  • Plan for amenity development by developing strategies to ensure that the scale and pace of amenity development doesn't result in the same negative impacts as the current oil and gas drilling boom.
  • Slow the pace of oil and gas drilling by implementing phased development of oil and natural gas resources.

We also include detailed information about many sources of economic and demographic data available at both the state and national level to aid in land management planning. We hope that this report will provide citizens, communities and decision makers with better information for balancing the extraction, recreation and amenity values of our public lands in the Rocky Mountains.