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Wilderness creates jobs too!

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Judith Lewis Mernit | Dec 23, 2010 02:10 PM

If you were to submit today’s Department of Interior press conference to a Facebook word ranking game, it would probably look something like this:

JOBS
ECONOMY
BILLION
DOLLARS
WILDERNESS

The conference, which took place at an REI store in Denver, was called to announce that the Bureau of Land Management would once again start taking inventory of lands in the West that have “wilderness characteristics,” ending a seven-year-old policy that emerged from a 2003 out-of-court settlement between Bush-era Interior Secretary Gale Norton and the state of Utah. That  “No More Wilderness” policy opened up unprecedented swaths of land for oil and gas and nullified citizen-inventoried wilderness proposals, (see Matt Jenkins' 2004 HCN story: “Two Decades of Hard Work, Plowed Under”). “It should never have happened and was wrong in the first place,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said during the press conference.

More to the point, it cost some people their jobs.

It’s hard to promote environmental ethics in a slack economy; inevitably, someone will use the phrase “job-killer” to describe today’s announcement. The list of speakers at the conference seemed to suggest that Interior’s public relations department had prepared for that: On hand was not just Salazar and BLM Director Bob Abbey, but Peter Metcalf, the outspoken CEO of Black Diamond Outdoor Equipment, there to remind the audience that outdoor recreation creates jobs, too –more, in the long run, than oil and gas combined.

“For years those of us who are part of the outdoor industry have recognized that the tired old sound bite debate of jobs versus preservation was an insult to the 6.5 million Americans whose jobs were dependent on this active outdoor recreation economy. It’s as if we and the $730 billion we contribute to the economy didn’t exist.”

Besides, he argued, those jobs last. “Hunting and fishing don’t go away once a gas field is exhausted,” he said.

They do, however, sometimes go away when a gas field moves in, and Salazar has not yet made it clear exactly what the new policy will do to prevent that kind of thing from happening. Like so many of Interior’s announcements these days, the new policy is more an intent than a hard rule, seemingly designed not to provoke too much backlash too soon. Time will tell which jobs it protects best.

Judith Lewis Mernit, an HCN contributing editor, writes from Venice, Calif.

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