The debate over the economic impact of federally protected lands has been raging for decades and probably won't be settled any time soon, if ever. Those still opposed to the 1996 designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, for example, say protecting the 1.9 million-acre chunk of southern Utah prevented economic growth from mining and drilling.
It's difficult to prove what might have been. But statistics gathered by Headwaters Economics, an independent nonpartisan research group that studies environmental issues in the West, show a definite increase in tourism-related jobs.
Jobs created by development of nonrenewable energy sources including coal, oil and gas are subject to a bust-and-boom cycle and eventually and inevitably will disappear permanently, leaving behind damaged ecosystems that could take centuries to restore. Jobs created by outdoor recreation can be sustained indefinitely.
According to the Headwaters Economics study, while population has increased by just 8 percent in Garfield and Kane counties, where Grand Staircase is located, jobs have grown 38 percent and real personal income 40 percent.
And that's just one example. The study found the same sort of economic boost at 17 communities where national monuments were designated during the past 20 years.
Those figures lend credence to the opinions of a majority of Utahns surveyed by Utah-based Lighthouse Research for the national group Republicans for Environmental Protection.
Sixty-nine percent rated the Grand Staircase-Escalante monument as "very good" or "somewhat good" for the state. Only 16 percent believed it is "somewhat bad" or "very bad."
Most of those surveyed 62 percent also believe the monument is an economic benefit, drawing tourists to the state as do national parks.
Tourism is a sustainable industry. Instead of leaving the heavy footprint of energy development on the environment, tourism flourishes when natural resources the canyons, landmarks, mountains, forests and deserts are protected.
The millions of people who camp, hike, hunt, fish and sightsee spend millions on equipment, guide trips, hotels, restaurants and groceries. And, since monument designation does not preclude grazing and allows even some mining and timber harvesting, those industries continue to provide jobs as well.
Protected natural treasures are gold mines of another, more lasting, form.
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