Message from Mike Matz: Protecting Land Brightens Economic Picture

With the nation's unemployment rate still riding above nine percent, much of the talk lately in Washington, DC is about job creation. Some policy makers are making the argument that protecting public land keeps Americans from working at good-paying jobs. Some who oppose land protection intone over and over again that getting Americans back to work depends on rolling back existing safeguards, opening more public land to drilling and mining and logging, and keeping additional public land from being protected. These elected officials would have the public believe that land set aside in its natural state, without roads, without mines, without oil rigs, with no logging, keeps the country's economy stalled.

Turns out, saving land has a very positive effect on local economies, a recent study found.

In the same neighborhood as Grand Canyon National Park, just across the border in Utah, sits the 1.9-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, established 15 years ago last month. Headwaters Economics, an independent research firm, studied the local economy before and after the establishment of the Grand Staircase-Escalante.

Headwaters Economics examined unemployment rates before 1996 and compared them with rates after, and found “the unemployment rate dropped from 10.1 percent in 1996 to 4.8 percent by 2007.” Before the national monument was established, the unemployment rate in Garfield County hit 13.8 percent in 1992 and 12.3 percent in 1995 – so the downturn of the last couple years could have had been worse without the growth in seasonal tourism jobs, small businesses catering to visitors, construction jobs building interpretive centers, and doctors and teachers serving people in those occupations. From 1996 to 2008, the number of jobs in the service sector grew 59 percent around the Grand Staircase-Escalante. What's more, they are good-paying positions; personal income grew by 40 percent during that period.

Headwaters Economics found “across the board, trends in important economic indicators either continued or improved in each of the regions surrounding the 17 national monuments studied.”

We cannot let anti-wilderness activists say what they want without answering them. Fortunately, people in Utah seem to recognize the economic benefits of protected public lands. A new poll in the state shows that by a 69 to 16 percent margin, Utah residents support the creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante, and a clear majority (62 percent to 21 percent) believes the national monument helps the economy.

Politics involves a public conversation about policies put forth to govern our country. Oftentimes that conversation is guided by ideology and yields no clear, universally recognized solution. The politics around public lands is different. As the Headwaters Economics study demonstrates, protecting public lands is a proven solution for declining economies, creating jobs and stabilizing, even growing communities. Results like that should supersede political rhetoric and ideology signaling a public policy we can all embrace.