This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The old idea that the state of Utah should somehow acquire millions of acres of federal land — and the new idea that taxpayers should pony up $14 million or more to sue for it — is based on the premise that having all that dirt locked up in Uncle Sam's hands is a serious drag on the local economy.

Elected officials in and from some of the state's more sparsely populated areas incessantly claim that those areas wouldn't be so thin on people, on income and on tax base if most or all of that land passed to state or private hands.

That's always been a thin proposition. Anyone who looks beyond the confines of Utah knows that the unsettling of America is a long-term phenomenon in rural areas across the continent. In the many Midwestern and Plains states which, many Utahns are quick to point out, have little or no federal land within their borders, the hollowing out of small towns, the closing of schools, the loss of the next generation to the bright lights of the big city are endemic.

There is a new analysis by some deep thinkers here in the West — Montana, to be exact — that suggests that there might be a factor that helps to slow the depopulation of what the demographers call "nonmetro" counties. And that factor is ... more federal land.

Not more than there is now. But more than other places.

The new study from Headwaters Economics, a policy shop in Bozeman, finds that rural communities with lots of federal land nearby have grown much more, in terms of population, economic activity and total and per capita income, than have similar counties with little or no federal land.

The trend holds up whether the land in question is under the officially multi-use oversight of the Bureau of Land Management or the more narrowly managed policies of the National Park Service or National Forest Service.

Headwaters took a fairly long-term look, flattening out business cycles and commodity fluctuations. From 1970 to 2014, the rural counties in 11 Western states that had the most federal land saw sharply higher boosts in population, employment and personal income than the counties with the least federal land.

Because they are honest wonks, the folks at Headwaters are clear that correlation is not causation. That is, areas with more federal land aren't necessarily richer because they have more federal land.

But they are richer. Probably because those lands — those that allow for resource extraction and those that are preserved for recreation and beauty — are a clear asset to be guarded, not a millstone to be thrown off.

Too bad Utah's elected officials can't see that.

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