Calories and economics on public lands


Back in the glitzy '80s, uber-designer Diane von Furstenberg gained notoriety for telling women "you can never be too rich or too thin." Turns out she was wrong on both counts.  But those central obsessions of Americans, weight and wealth, have become a lens through which to view the benefits of a surprising array of things – including the West's public lands.

 Two new studies show that public lands are valuable because – wait for it – they burn fat and generate dollars. A Forest Service study published recently estimates that last year, visitors to the nation's forests burned a collective 290 billion calories. That's 83 million pounds of body fat -- measured in French fries, enough to reach to the moon and back.


Western forests account for three-quarters of recreation visits and associated energy expenditure on national forest land. But per capita, Easterners burn more calories when visiting their national forests, perhaps because smaller  preserves in the northeast and southeast lend themselves more to fat-burning activities like hiking and hunting than lazy drive-throughs. "It's a lot of exercise going on in national forests," Jeff Kline, research forester for the Pacific Northwest Research Station and lead author of the study, told Environment & Energy News (subscription required).

And a study by independent research firm Headwaters Economics shows that areas around national monuments have experienced continued economic growth since the monuments were designated.  The study's findings are proving inconvenient for Tea Party politicians lobbying for six bills that would limit or block presidential authority to designate new monuments under the 1906 Antiquities Act (wielded to great effect by President Clinton on his way out of office). The Associated Press reports:

Jerry Taylor, mayor of Escalante City, Utah, testified in favor of the bills. He said the 15-year-old Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has been "devastating" to his small town and cost many people their jobs.

But Taylor's claims are directly refuted by the Headwaters study, which looked at 17 monuments in 11 states:

Between its creation by President Bill Clinton in 1996 and 2008, the communities around the 1.8 million acre Grand Staircase saw their population grow by 8 percent – and had job growth of 38%. During the same time period, real personal income rose by 40% and real per capita income jumped 30%. Service jobs saw an increase of 59%.

In the Grand-Canyon-Parashant region, jobs grew by 44 percent between 2000 and 2008, ten percentage points higher than population growth. Real personal income was up 44 percent.

Ray Rasker, Headwaters' executive director, said, “In all cases there was growth of employment, real personal income, and real per capita income after designation of the national monument.”

Predictably, GOP Rep. Denny Rehberg of Montana waved the anti-government flag for his constituents:

"This isn't about preventing future monument designations. It's about making sure those designations aren't forced on people who frankly don't want or need them," Rehberg said.

Hmm. Last time we checked, the West's public lands were just that – public, to be managed for the benefit of all Americans, not just for locals who don't want restrictions on their ability to use those public lands for their personal benefit.

But I digress. I need to make my weekend plans -- I'm going to ride my bike on a 40 mile loop that goes up and over Colorado National Monument, expending calories all the way. And then I'm going to replenish all that burned fat with pizza and ice cream in the lively downtown of Grand Junction, Colo., a town weathering the downturn pretty well, thanks to a diverse economic base that includes said monument.

 Jodi Peterson is HCN's managing editor.

Images courtesy of National Park Service and Marketplace New York.

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