Protected Public Lands Promote Jobs and Higher Incomes, Part One

Pagosa Daily Post

Muriel Eason | 1/3/13

As the Pagosa Springs Community Development Corporation (PSCDC) evolves and makes new plans to enhance and diversify our local economy, we are learning about our unique assets and opportunities to grow our economy without becoming “Every Town” USA.  Archuleta County is unique in so many respects and the challenge is to retain that uniqueness and use it to become a truly special place, but also a place where our young people can stay, raise families and find good jobs.  As the PSCDC is learning of our opportunities, we want to share that learning with members of the community, so this is the first of a series of articles on our natural opportunities for growth.

Pagosa Springs is surrounded by vast public lands and wilderness.  Only 31% of Archuleta County is privately owned and 49% is managed by the U.S. Forest Service.  According to Headwaters Economics, an independent, nonprofit research group whose mission is to improve community development and land management decisions in the West, these public lands create a competitive economic advantage—one that we have not recognized and capitalized on as yet.

Headwaters Economics released a research report in November, 2012 that found that the West’s popular national parks, monuments, wilderness areas and other public lands offer its growing high-tech and services industries a competitive advantage, which is a major reason why the western economy has outperformed the rest of the U.S. economy in key measures of growth—employment, population, and personal income—during the last four decades.

The economy of the West, like that of the U.S. and other industrialized economies, has shifted over time from a primary reliance on the extraction and processing of raw materials to the deployment of human skills, technology, and innovation.  In today’s economy, the West’s largest economic drivers are not directly tied to wood, gold, cattle, or other basic commodities, but rather stem from the growing value-added contributions of knowledge-based sectors across the region. In addition, as the West’s economy shifts toward a knowledge-based economy, new research shows that protected federal public lands support faster rates of job growth and are correlated with higher levels of per capita income.

Western non-metropolitan counties like Archuleta County, with more than 30 percent of the county’s land base in federal protected status such as national parks, monuments, wilderness, and other similar designations increased jobs by 345 percent over the last 40 years. By comparison, similar counties with no protected federal public lands increased employment by only 83 percent.  In 2010, per capita income in western non-metropolitan counties with 100,000 acres of protected public lands is on average $4,360 higher than per capita income in similar counties with no protected public lands.

A high-quality outdoor environment along with a culture of innovation gives the West a unique competitive advantage that helps explain why the region’s economy is the fastest-growing in the country. As the structure of the U.S. economy and new growth opportunities have shifted to knowledge-based occupations and industries, the factors that determine the location of companies are shifting. Traditional location factors are relatively less important to firms in knowledge-based enterprises. Thanks to advances in transportation and communication, these companies now have far fewer constraints on where they conduct business. As “footloose” businesses, whose success is relatively independent of location, such companies are less focused on traditional cost factors and more sensitive to the preferences of CEOs and recruitment and retention factors such as access to outdoor recreation and natural landscapes.

What do communities need to attract the best and the brightest? They require good schools and transportation infrastructure, and high-speed Internet. Increasingly, they also need a high quality of life, with clean air and water, ample recreation opportunities, scenic vistas, and other amenities that draw entrepreneurs and a skilled workforce.  This is precisely where the West excels. The region’s wide-open spaces, mountains, canyons, and other spectacular natural features set the West apart from the rest of the country. Because significant portions of these lands are public, and protected as national parks and monuments for example, they are accessible and enjoyed by the West’s residents at higher rates than in the rest of the country.

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