Study links rural income levels to protected lands
Western U.S. • Think tank concludes parks and wilderness tied to growth in rural incomes.
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A new study by a Montana think tank has found a strong positive correlation between personal income in rural Western counties with the amount of protected federal land in or near those counties.

Headwaters Economics, an independent research organization, reported that 24 percent of personal income in Utah's Kane County, for example, can be explained by the presence of national monuments and parks and other public lands with special designations. That's $7,731 per person for that county in the heart of the Colorado Plateau's redrock wonderland with1.1 million acres under federal protection.

In neighboring Garfield County, the figure is $4,789 in per-capita income connected with protected lands, or 17 percent of personal income, according to the study.

Findings like these run counter to the viewpoint by some state and county leaders in Utah who say "locking up" land with wilderness and monument designations thwarts rural economic development by keeping out drilling, mining, logging and roads. This sentiment helped win passage for HB148, last year's bill calling on the federal government to cede ownership of Utah's public lands to the state.

The goal of that law, however, is not to strip scenic landscapes of protection, but facilitate dialogue on how best to manage public lands in the West, according to Kathleen Clarke, director of Utah's Public Lands Policy Coordination Office.

"The report confirms what we already know. The public lands are incredibly valuable to our state for many reasons," said Clarke, who led the federal Bureau of Land Management during the second Bush administration. Utah's cherished landscapes have been appropriately shielded from development, but the state also harbors world-class energy deposits that are hard to tap because federal land managers take guidance from Washington, D.C., rather than local communities, she said.

"The state has no intention of taking pristine lands and converting them to energy opportunities," Clarke stressed. "There are benefits that come to the state in terms of economic opportunities when we have those critical lands in conservation. That's a given. What we haven't looked at are what are the impacts [of landscape conservation] on the rural quality of life."

Headwaters' Bozeman, Mont.-based economists concede protected lands impede high-paying industries like wood products and mining, but protection carries indirect economic benefits that are hard to measure.

The biggest is their ability to attract talented people to relocate in towns like Kanab or Moab, bringing with them businesses and income streams from investments, Social Security and other non-labor sources.

The Internet and e-commerce enable many entrepreneurs to live where they choose, and the ability to recreate in untrammeled scenic landscapes in the rural West is a big draw.

"We can't make the argument that protected federal lands in and of themselves are a sole driver of economic growth. It's a contributing factor," study co-author Patricia Gude said. "There are many factors for growth, like access to markets, transportation infrastructure, educated workforce. Protected public lands fit in that larger picture."

The study found that non-metro counties' per capita income, on average, is $436 higher for every 10,000 acres of protected federal lands within their boundaries, according to Headwaters Executive Director Ray Rasker.

"Today's analysis gives businesses, local officials, and community leaders a better understanding of one way that protected federal lands provide their county with a competitive and economic advantage," said Rasker, lead author on the report.

Headwaters examined 286 non-metro counties with protected lands in the 11 contiguous Western states. Traditional industries are becoming less important in these counties, the report says. Agriculture accounted for 5 percent of employment in 2010 and resource extraction combined for 2 percent, while services accounted for 61 percent.

According to "West Is Best," a Headwaters report released in November, Utah's 20 percent growth in employment between 2000 and 2011 was the nation's best showing. Population grew by 26 percent, but personal income grew by 31 percent, a fact the authors attributed in part to Utah's world-class recreation. But an energy boom probably helped this picture.

During this period, Utah gained 279,927 jobs, with the great majority coming in the service industries, such as real estate, health care, finance and insurance. Mining and drilling accounted for 7,667 of these jobs.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, who endorses the state-control goals of HB148, contends the state does not have to choose between extractive industries and recreation.

"It's in the state's interest in having a diversified economy. Individual sectors tend to rise and fall over time. That's why we have clusters looking at medical devices, biomedical, energy, but also the outdoor industry," said Alan Matheson, Herbert's environmental adviser. "When the governor released his outdoor vision last week, he talked about recreation as an important sector in Utah's economy."

bmaffly@sltrib.com