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About 143 million Americans recreated outdoors last year, many of them enjoying the West's famous, publicly owned natural landscapes.

That's more than the number of people who voted in the 2012 presidential election and nearly half the U.S. population — so political candidates who advocate for reducing or eliminating protections on public lands do so at their peril.

That was the key message at a panel discussion hosted Wednesday during the opening day of the Outdoor Retailer summer trade show in Salt Lake City.

During the forum titled "Winning the West," economist Ray Rasker and others cited data and polling results that highlight the vital roles public lands play in the economic prospects and quality of life in Western counties.

Conventional wisdom among Utah's political leaders and rural county commissioners is that national monuments and federal land management stifle economic development.

But economic data suggest the opposite is true, according to Rasker, director of the Montana-based Headwaters Economics. What Headwaters has found, in short, is: Public lands good, protected public lands better.

"The West has consistently outpaced the rest of the country in terms of job growth, personal income and per capita income. There is something unique about the West," Rasker said.

He found that a county's per capita income is $4,360 higher for every 100,000 acres of protected public land in its boundaries.

But leaders in rural Utah have argued that land protection is depriving many families of the means for making a living. The state is preparing a lawsuit to force the federal government to cede title to 31 million acres.

According to Rasker, much of the growth in Western income comes from non-labor sources, health care and high-tech industries. In the rural West, extractive industries account for only 5.3 percent of personal income.

While mining, grazing, timber and drilling have languished in recent decades, recreation has boomed, transforming some communities in scenic areas into outdoor sports meccas.

The outdoor industry has become a "sleeping giant," representing $646 billion in economic activity — twice what Americans spend on motor vehicles, said economist Rob Southwick, an expert in outdoor business trends. He said the claim that conservation pits jobs against recreation is a "bogus argument" that ignores the broad economic benefits arising from intact public lands.

"We are not trying to supplant other industries. We are saying, 'Diversify your local economy. Don't be subject to boom and bust cycles. Plan it thoughtfully and give continuous recreation access to these areas,' " said panel moderator Alex Boian, director for government affairs for the Outdoor Industry Association.

According to Jennifer Rokala of the Center for Western Priorities, Western voters believe public lands are essential to their quality of life and pivotal to their states' economies.

Her claim was based on recent polling by Purple Strategies, which interviewed several hundred voters in Nevada, Colorado and Montana.

Strong majorities in all three of these states disagree with the notion that their states have too much public land.

"Voters do not support selling off public land, opening more lands for development and opening wilderness to motorized access. There is nothing to lose by maintaining a pro-conservation position," Rokala said. "Voters prefer a collaborative approach."

And candidates who support transferring lands from federal to state control, she said, "are on the wrong side from where the voters are."

Twitter: @brianmaffly