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Save the American West [Blowback]

March 14, 2012 |  1:24 pm

Coconino County

Matt Kirby takes on Robert H. Nelson's recent Op-Ed, "Free the American West." Kirby works on public lands policy for the Sierra Club and is an avid outdoorsman. If you would like to write a full-length response to a recent Times article, editorial or Op-Ed and would like to participate in Blowback, here are our FAQs and submission policy.

The recent opinion article decrying public lands, "Free the American West," by Robert H. Nelson, is out of touch with the current Western economy. Much has changed since Nelson's days at the Department of Interior in the 1970s.  

In the last 40 years, the fastest growth in the West has occurred in areas that are directly adjacent to protected public lands. Safeguarding and highlighting the quality of life offered by these special pieces of America's natural heritage draw new residents, tourists and businesses. Together the Department of the Interior and the Forest Service see an average of 591 million visitors every year -- visitors who stimulate local economies and support jobs. Visitors aren't coming to see mines, oil and gas wells, and clear-cut forests, the activities for which Nelson says these lands should be "freed up." They're traveling to hunt, to fish, to hike, to camp, and for a hundred other sustainable activities that require protected public lands. Outdoor recreation generates $730 billion for the U.S. economy each year and supports almost 6.5 million jobs.

In November, more than 100 eminent economists sent a letter to President Obama asking that he protect more lands, not less. The letter states: "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." This is further supported by an independent analysis conducted last year by Headwaters Economics regarding the economies of communities in 11 Western states adjacent to recently established national monuments. Of the 17 national monuments they studied, the local economies in every single case grew following the creation of the monument. All of these communities either saw a continued or improved growth in employment, real personal income and per capita income. Even during the economic downturn, our protected lands have continued to provide consistent tourism revenue for local communities. Coconino County, for example, home of the Grand Canyon, set a record in tourism revenue in 2010 even as statewide tourism was down.  

Nelson claims that our federal lands policy was created in a different time with different needs. And with that claim I agree. But the truth is that our protected public lands are more important today than they were in 1910. The modern world has made those lands more easily accessible for all Americans than at any point in history. And Americans are clearly taking advantage of all the opportunities they afford.  

Today Americans of all stripes benefit from more than a century of conservation efforts.  If industry had been "free" to do as it wished in the early 1900s, we would not be able to enjoy the Grand Canyon or Grand Teton National Park as they are today. Early efforts to abolish protections for these special places today seem unthinkable.  

A recent Colorado College poll of Western voters showed nearly unanimous agreement that public lands are "an essential" part of their state economies. Even in tough economic times, Western voters overwhelmingly agreed that we should continue making investments in conservation. 

People realize that the benefits of public lands are far-reaching. Outside of the recreation economy, the services that natural areas provide range from air and water filtration to storm protection. These services create real savings with a $1.6 trillion annual impact. Farmers, ranchers and city dwellers all rely on the clean air and clean water that protected places provide, just as they rely on our protected public lands for opportunities to recreate, retreat and recharge.  

America's ability to thrive and safeguard jobs in the conservation and outdoor economy depends on maintaining strong federal protections for our public lands. Now more than ever, we need to strengthen the lands legacy we leave for future generations, not subdivide it.  


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Photo: Cathedral Rock in the Coconino National Forest. It is a landmark of Sedona's skyline and one of the most photographed sights in Arizona. Credit: Charmaine Noronha / Associated Press 

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