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Know the West

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.