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for people who care about the West

West is best?


A post-Thanksgiving hike should not be too strenuous. It needs to be vigorous enough to help awaken from a food coma but not so tough as to ruin the long weekend. This year, a light stroll through nearby Dominguez Canyon, with a close group of friends, fit the bill. After just a short drive and a skip over the railway line we were walking beside the Gunnison River, which flowed lazy and clear under the watery winter sun. A few miles into the hike we found ourselves standing around a set of petroglyphs, flanked by orange-red rock, trying to decipher a scene featuring a large armadillo-type critter. We should have camped that night we decided, and told stories under starlight, but we didn’t. Next time. There’s always next time.

The opportunity to slip off into the quietude of public lands, whether to race a mountain bike on winding trails or hike into the backcountry and find temporary solace, is a particularly Western phenomenon. In the West, 46 percent of all land is public, compared to just 15 percent in the rest of the country. And while protected public lands offer space for silence and play, they also help drive economic growth in the West, according to a new report from Headwater Economics, unashamedly titled “West is Best.”

The report highlights that for the past 40 years Western states have been outstripping other states in terms of employment, personal income and population growth, and that protected public lands, including national parks, monuments, and wilderness areas, help boost job opportunities and how much people earn. And this is particularly true of non-metropolitan counties, not just the big cities. At the same time, the appeal of the outdoor lifestyle Westerners enjoy is attracting entrepreneurs and talented professionals in service industries, including healthcare workers, architects and engineers. A detailed, interactive breakdown of economic activity in each state is available here, but for a quick skim of the findings take a look at these figures.

345 percent: growth in jobs between 1970 and 2010 in Western non-metropolitan counties where over 30 percent of land is federally protected

83 percent: growth in jobs in non-metropolitan Western counties with no protected public lands over the same period

33.8 million: Western population in 1970

Over 70 million: Western population today

19.3 million: number of new jobs the services sector (including health care, real estate, financial services) added in the West between 1970 and 2010

$4,360: how much more the average person in a Western non-metropolitan county with 100, 000 acres of protected public land earns than someone in a similar county with no protected public lands

234 percent: growth in personal income among Westerners from 1970 to 2010

149 percent: rise in personal income in rest of the country over the same period

Brendon Bosworth is a High Country News intern.

Images: Petroglyph at Dominguez Canyon, Brendon Bosworth.

Map showing concentration of public lands in Western U.S., courtesy Headwaters Economics.