Economists are still adding up all the damage from the government shutdown, but one thing is for sure, public lands in the West are a low priority for this administration. Closing down the recreation economy in many communities that depend on public lands proves once again that a portion of our elected officials are blind to the real economic drivers of the 21st century.
Many communities near public lands are growing in spite of closing coal-fired power plants and low prices for natural gas. Growth in these areas is coming from the increased demand for high quality of life that access to public land brings.
Over much of history, the best way to make a living for your family was to own land and use it to grow food through ranching or farming, or earn a living through mining or drilling. Yet back when the American West was settled, great swaths of land were never homesteaded, and thus came to be owned by all Americans in the form of our national forests, our Bureau of Land Management lands, and our national parks.
Several of our elected officials still see federal land ownership as somehow stealing economic opportunities from nearby residents. How can our children make a living if the federal government has tied up all the land? This may have been a valid concern in the 19th century, but today there are thousands of ways to make a living that have nothing to do with land ownership.
Just ask the folks in Silicon Valley, or Silicon Slopes, as the tech companies call themselves in Utah just south of Salt Lake City, an easy drive to dozens of ski areas in national forests, five national parks and literally thousands of miles of open roads and trails on BLM lands — all of which are being used to recruit the best and the brightest to Utah.
Today's entrepreneurs, corporations, and employees can often locate wherever they choose—and more and more are choosing to live in places with access to the great outdoors. Communities like Bend, Oregon; Bozeman, Montana; and Fruita, Colorado to name just a few, are attracting both millennials, corporations, and retirees precisely because these communities have access to public lands and the quality of life they bring.
Many communities are capitalizing on America’s extensive public lands and associated recreation economies to attract both quality of life recruits, who bring their businesses, as well as visitors from around the country and the world. During the shutdown, these communities suffered.
Not only did extensive populations of federal workers go without paychecks, but many others that rely on public land experienced financial distress. Without federal land managers to issue permits and assist the public in planning their trips, bookings dropped and planning for upcoming events on public lands of all types fell behind. So in addition to the well documented shortfall in National Park entrance fees, much larger revenue streams from local payrolls to tax receipts dropped.
Access to shared public lands is bringing economic development to thousands of communities across the West, and the shutdown disrupted this powerful economic driver. And a second shutdown will leave lasting impact as uncertainty about access to National Parks and other public lands sows confusion and discourages investments that have proven to bring jobs. It is time for our elected officials, at all levels, to stop chasing imaginary threats and focus on real opportunities to bring lasting prosperity to the American west through consistent and strong support for both our public lands and the people who manage them.
Ashley Korenblat is CEO of Western Spirit Cycling in Moab.