While key factors such as an educated workforce, access to markets and tax policy will remain important considerations for local economic health, the nation is shifting toward a knowledge-based economy, meaning that more Americans are choosing to live where they can enjoy outdoor recreation and a high quality of life.
This increases the importance of federal public lands, a defining feature of the West. The federal government manages 355 million acres, or 46 percent of all land in the region.
Increasingly, chambers of commerce, local economic development associations and growing companies are using the region's protected federal lands as a tool to recruit entrepreneurs and retain talented employees, leading to a more diverse and expanding economy.
And these lands are providing a measurable economic edge. Our report, "West is Best: How Public Lands in the West Create a Competitive Economic Advantage," found that these protected public lands support faster rates of job growth and higher levels of per-capita income.
From 1970 to 2010, Western non-metro counties with more than 30 percent of their land base in federal protected status increased jobs by 345 percent. As the share of federal lands in protected status declines, the rate of job growth declines as well. Rural counties with no protected federal land increased jobs by 83 percent.
A statistical analysis done as part of our study shows that per-capita income in Western non-metropolitan counties with protected public lands is higher than in other similar counties. For every gain of 10,000 acres of protected public land, average per-capita income in that county in 2010 was $436 higher.
Last year more than 100 U.S. economists and related academics, among them three Nobel winners, urged President Obama to "create jobs and support businesses by investing in our public lands infrastructure and establishing new protected areas such as parks, wilderness, and monuments."
The benefits of the West's protected lands should increase as the region, including non-metro counties, continues to shift toward a knowledge-based economy.
Our findings and those of others raise important questions for policy makers and community leaders about which federal, state, and local policies and investments will maximize the value of protected public lands for the continued growth of western businesses and communities.
Ray Rasker is executive director of Headwaters Economics, a Montana-based independent research group that focuses on community development and land management across the West.