Study: Shrinking national monuments could cost hundreds of jobs

While rural Utah leaders have long derided national monument designations as an unacceptable drag on their area economies, a new study by a nonpartisan think tank indicates that large monuments, including Grand Staircase-Escalante, on balance, have helped drive economic activity in adjacent communities.

And, it warns, reducing them in size, as has happened in Utah, could cost hundreds of jobs.

These are the findings of Resources for the Future, a long-established nonpartisan organization, based in Washington, D.C. Its economists analyzed the economic effects of 14 large monuments designated in eight Western states between 1996 and 2014, teasing out causal connections to changes in employment and business development.

“National monument designations mostly have positive impacts on the economy," lead author Margaret Walls said, “and in some measures, have no effects at all.”

Rather than contracting, a local economy can get a boost after nearby public land is captured in a national monument, according to the study. Jobs near monuments rise by 8.5%, on average, while the number of businesses grows by almost 10%, the researchers found.

Walls’ team also found that traditional resource-based industries, such as livestock grazing and mineral extraction, were not affected by the designations.

The study builds on research led by Utah State University economist Paul Jakus, who analyzed per-capita incomes and concluded large monument designations are “neither a boon nor a bane” to local economies.

“The key improvement of the Walls paper over our study was a finer degree of resolution in the data,” Jakus wrote in an email. “We used county-level annual data on per capita income, but Margaret and her colleagues were able to use a proprietary database that captures employment and establishment effects at the firm level. You can think of this as the difference between using your unaided eyes (us) versus using a microscope (them).”

(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) Dave Treanor works with his horses in Escalante in 2015. Erin and Dave Treanor own Rising DT Ranch Horse Tours and provide horseback tours around the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Walls’ team tracked several economic metrics over a 25-year period, such as the number of jobs per business, the total number of jobs and businesses, their yearly rate of change, and average wages.

“Rural communities in the U.S. are changing and their economies transitioning away from a reliance on resource-dependent industries,” states the report posted recently in Science Advances. “Our results suggest that protecting some of these public lands as national monuments does not exacerbate these trends, but rather could even be reversing them and creating a new set of economic forces oriented around the historic, cultural, and scenic amenities these public lands provide.”

Officials from Kane, Garfield and San Juan counties, where two large monuments are located in Utah, have long complained the designations stifle economic development, remove public land from productive use, and exclude longtime residents. Jobs that might be created are not ones than many locals — folks who grew up around cattle, logging operations and drill rigs — would be interested in filling, they argue.

But the researchers found “very little actually changes on the landscape when a monument is designated. The broader economic trends in the West show a general shift away from natural resource–based and extractive industries toward a variety of service sectors,” the report said. “In 2015, 36% of all jobs in rural areas of the eight-state Mountain West region were in services.”

The new study argues job losses in extractive industries cannot be blamed on monuments, and shrinking them could deal a tangible economic blow.

(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) Cows graze in Escalante in 2015.

Based on its findings, Walls’ team predicted that recent reductions orchestrated by President Donald Trump, slashing 2 million acres from those two Utah monuments, could result in the loss of 700 rural jobs, or approximately 2% of all jobs in the region.

Trump’s controversial move contracting the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase monuments is the largest reduction of land protection in U.S. history. Five separate lawsuits, filed by various tribal, conservation, scientific and business groups, are challenging Trump’s authority to cut the monuments and seeking their restoration.

Together, the research teams led by Jakus and Walls have examined the effects of 21 national monuments and have arrived at similar conclusions.

“Two different research teams have been unable to document evidence that [a monument] designation causes, in general, economic hardship in local communities. That’s not to say that it couldn’t happen for one monument or another but, in general, we can be confident that economic damage to a community is unlikely to come from designation,” Jakus said. “Interestingly, the new study finds no difference in wages received. ... This matches our finding exactly, so the studies are consistent with one another.”

The monuments in Walls’ study cover nearly 6 million acres in eight states; all were designated by Democratic presidents wielding the mighty powers of the Antiquities Act. Most of these designations fell on lands overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, which has a multiuse mandate.

Unlike national parks, BLM-administered monuments allow hunting and livestock, while providing minimal visitor facilities aside from trailheads. Visitor centers are sometimes established in neighboring communities.

The study window precedes the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears designation in southeast Utah by President Barack Obama in 2016, and later cut by Trump to 200,000 acres.

Established in a surprise and controversial proclamation by President Bill Clinton in 1996, the Grand Staircase was by far the biggest and busiest of the 14 monuments studied. Initially designated at 1.7 million acres, it was expanded to 1.9 million acres with the addition of state trust inholdings and then halved to about 1 million acres by Trump. It saw a record 1.1 million visitors in 2018, the year after its reduction.

While the Staircase was the only Utah monument in the study, others are very close to Utah, including Canyons of the Ancients in Colorado, Vermilion Cliffs and Grand Canyon-Parashant in Arizona, and Craters of the Moon in Idaho.

The research suggests that rural economies can thrive even as public lands come under protection to preserve the natural and scientific values.

The findings “indicate that monument designations are associated with an average increase in the number of establishments and jobs in areas around the monuments,” the study states. “Monument opponents often argue that low-wage service-sector jobs replace relatively high-wage jobs in, for example, the mining industry when monuments are designated. We find no evidence of this; earnings appear to be unaffected, on average.”

No surprise, the biggest boost in jobs was observed in service industries, showing increases of 16% in lodging, 24% in business services, 29% in health, 16% in finance and real estate, and 17% in construction.

Monument critics often point to a drop in lumber mills jobs and school enrollment in Escalante after the 1996 Staircase designation as evidence that the monument throttled economic activity in the historic Garfield town. Trends like those, however, most likely mirror what has happened elsewhere in southern Utah, the report suggests.

“I’m not disparaging what members of the community are saying. I’ve been to Escalante and have heard the differing opinions there,” Walls said. “Just because you observed something doesn’t mean it was caused by the monument.”

Walls’ team included researchers Patrick Lee, and Matthew Ashenfarb. Their work was supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts and Resources for the Future’s Castle Rural Lands Fund.