Four charts that show how public land is good for rural areas

A study finds that personal income is rising faster in counties with more public land.

 

For many parts of the rural West — like Oregon’s Harney County, where timber jobs dropped 70 percent between 1998 and 2013 — large swaths of public land can feel like a burden. Counties rich in public land are often at the mercy of federal land managers, so when logging, mining or ranching dries up — either because of management decisions or shifts in the market — loggers, miners and ranchers can feel powerless. Watching young people flee to cities, it’s easy to conclude that federally managed lands impede economic growth. 

But a new study by Montana nonprofit Headwaters Economics shows that’s not necessarily the case. Overall, rural Western counties with more federal land performed noticeably better by four key economic indicators than counties with less public land. Not only that, but counties with land protected as national parks, wilderness, national conservation areas, national monuments or national wildlife refuges — land with little or no extractive resource production — fared best of all for personal and per-capita income growth. 

“We’re data-driven, and our reflex to hearing (recent anti-public lands) rhetoric is to look at the data,” says Megan Lawson, the study’s author. “There are certainly rural places that are struggling, but that’s not the primary story we’re seeing across the West.”

Though economic growth in rural areas is still far surpassed by urban growth, Western rural counties with the highest share of federal lands had on average faster population, employment, personal income and per capita income growth between 1970 and 2014 than those with less public land. 

When you take into account federal lands specifically protected for recreation and wildlife, rather than extraction, the differences remain strong.

The study looked at all 276 Western counties without a city of 50,000 or more or with population density below 1,000 people per square mile, designated as "non-metro" by the U.S. Census Bureau. To be fair, the overall gains are thus skewed by a few very wealthy counties, like Colorado’s Summit County (home to ritzy ski resorts) and Teton County, Wyoming (home to Jackson Hole), which had personal income growth of 2,757 and 2,253 percent, respectively. Lawson says that when she took the top 5 percent — the Vails and Aspens — out of the equation, the difference in economic growth between counties with the highest and lowest protected federal land decreased by about 16 percent. But the overall gains were still significant. 

Scrolling through the list of counties, it’s clear that most of those with high proportions of federal land have experienced at least moderate economic growth. It’s equally clear that those with less public lands have a lot of negative numbers. “I don’t want to say that public lands cause economic growth,” Lawson cautions. “But what we’re seeing is they certainly don’t stop it.” 

Given the time scale covered, the findings don’t represent a short-term boom and bust or the influence of a single industry. Instead, they suggest that as the Western economy has shifted from a resource-driven economy to a service-based economy over the past four decades, the role of public lands has changed. Today, recreation and scenic views often bring more economic benefit than resource production.

That’s not to say that resource production isn’t vital. For many counties — and the overall economy — it is. But today, real estate, health care and tech and investment jobs, including those that allow employees to work remotely, are the biggest drivers of economic growth. Entrepreneurs and creative types are drawn to scenic places with easy recreational access, which might explain the rise in places like Port Townsend, Washington, or Durango, Colorado. Other places, like Chaffee County, Colorado — where commercial rafting on the Arkansas River has exploded in popularity — are likely driven by the outdoor service industry itself.

So why are outliers like Harney County, Oregon, lagging behind? Lawson suggests it’s because tourism, tech and healthcare are faster-growing or more stable than agriculture, timber, or oil and gas. Counties struggling to maintain their workforce tend to have stuck with the latter — either intentionally or not. Every region and county has a unique “economic potential,” and places that are particularly isolated, far from markets and airports, typically have a harder time diversifying their economies beyond traditional extractive industries. For places like Harney County, there are no easy solutions.

Yet snowballing economic gains can have their own downsides. With growth can come unaffordable real estate, unoccupied second homes and hordes of tourists, not to mention overstressed natural resources. “If it’s an attractive place to live… working class people can get pushed out,” Lawson says. But as a county transitions to a more diverse economy, it also becomes better able to weather the loss of a big employer or a national recession, which benefits the working class. “It’s a double-edged sword. You have a higher cost of living, but also also greater resiliency. It’s a real struggle.” 

Krista Langlois is a correspondent at High Country News.  

High Country News Classifieds
  • GENERAL MANAGER
    The Board of UYWCD seeks a new GM to manage operations & to implement our robust strategic plan. Details at www.upperyampawater.com. EOE
  • IN TUCSON, FOR SALE: A BEAUTIFUL, CLASSIC MID-CENTURY MODERN HOME
    designed by architect David Swanson in 1966. Located a block from Saguaro National Forest, yet minutes to Downtown and the UofA campus, 3706 sqft, 6...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Friends of the San Juans is seeking a new leader guide our efforts to protect and restore the San Juan Islands and the Salish...
  • 80 ACRES
    straddles North Platte Fishery, Wyoming. Legal access 2 miles off 1-80. Call 720-440-7633.
  • DIRECTOR OF PRODUCT AND MARKETING
    High Country News seeks a Director of Product and Marketing to join our senior team during an exciting chapter of innovation and growth. This individual...
  • OWN A THRIVING MOUNTAIN GUIDE SERVICE.
    Eastern Sierra guide service for sale to person with vision & expertise to take it onwards. Since 1995 with USFS & NPS permits. Ideal for...
  • IMPROVED LOT
    Private road, hillside, views. Well, pad, septic, 99 sq.ft. hut. Dryland permaculture orchard. Wildlife. San Diego--long growing season
  • UNIQUE INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITY
    Profitable off-the-grid business located 2 miles from Glacier National Park. Owner has 6 years operating experience. Seeking investor or partner for business expansion and enhancement....
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...