While nodding to multiple-use areas that can include mineral extraction and other traditional job creators, the economists said beautiful places are driving the West's new economy. They also called for fixing and maintaining current parks, with investments in the tradition of the New Deal's Civilian Conservation Corps, to keep up their economic allure.
"America's public lands can be used responsibly while expanding protections for the nation's world-class natural amenities," they wrote to Obama. "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."
Creating wilderness areas where most development is prohibited requires congressional approval, but some of those who signed the letter explained it is aimed as much at defusing talk in Congress to sell off public landmarks as it is at the president.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, rejected their argument as conveniently overlooking the "lost opportunities" when land becomes a park or wilderness. The associated tourism could be an economic plus if there's nothing else going on in the area, he said, but "if there is some other kind of option, this becomes a detriment to economic development."
A study by Montana-based Headwaters Economics spelled out the rationale for saving more of the West's public lands from development: Counties with wilderness and other protections for attractive places grow faster than others.
Ray Rasker, an economist with Headwaters, pointed to a recent study of Grand County's recreation market that his organization conducted. It found that employment centered on Moab's diverse outdoor playground fueled job growth at 7 percent in the 1990s and even hit 2 percent during the Great Recession.
"It didn't suffer the declines," Rasker said, "that much of the rest of the country suffered."
The argument sounds forced to officials in places that are more dependent on oil and gas, and less on parks and wilderness.
"The facts do not bear that out," said Uintah County Commissioner Mike McKee, who nonetheless supports wilderness where he agrees it's the best use, such as the High Uintas.
When the Obama administration recently sold six of the 77 Utah oil and gas leases parcels that it had held up for environmental review in 2009, McKee noted, energy companies paid nearly $50 million. "That's a lot of recreation."
He pointed to another economic report, published in June by economists at Utah State University, showing that family income in counties with designated wilderness is about $1,500 lower than in other counties.