Suzanne Harrison: Public lands pay dividends, and false narratives hurt Utahns the most

Mike Lee uses his platform to make deceptive statements about Utah’s public lands.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) In this May 8, 2017, photo, is Arch Canyon within Bears Ears National Monument in Utah.

From snow-capped mountains to the red rocks of our state, Utahns recognize there are few places in the world that offer the chance to experience such awe-inspiring geography. Any Utahn would say they are proud of our public lands and I am no exception. My family cherishes the time we spend in Utah’s national parks and monuments.

Research consistently shows that these places are not only intrinsically valuable, but also economically lucrative – providing revenue that helps our schools, social services and communities. Despite a tired and misleading narrative, we know that public lands in Utah are an asset, not a liability.

That’s why I remain wary of Sen. Mike Lee’s continued rhetoric about our public lands, including during a recent National Parks Subcommittee Legislative hearing. His bill, Protect Utah’s Rural Economy Act, would exempt Utah from the Antiquities Act — meaning many of the places that need protection in our state could become even more vulnerable.

Since 1906, presidents of both parties have protected many important places via the Antiquities Act including our beloved Arches, Zion, Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon National Parks. These national treasures are an economic engine for surrounding areas and provide unparalleled outdoor recreation opportunities — all while protecting archaeological, ecological and cultural resources.

Each year, in Utah alone, the outdoor recreation industry generates $12 billion in consumer spending and $737 million in state and local tax revenue. The sector provides 110,000 jobs and generates an additional $3.9 billion per year in wages and salaries.

The Antiquities Act has played a huge role in stimulating Utah’s economy. Within five years of its designation in 1996, the region surrounding Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument experienced a 24% growth in jobs and 32% boost in personal income. What’s even more amazing: investment-related income grew 3.5 times as quickly in counties surrounded by protected lands.

Studies even show that these areas retain younger populations — allowing more individuals to live and thrive in rural communities. When we protect public lands, we help diversify the economy and invest in the future of our communities.

When it comes to conservation, there is much common ground. A recent Colorado College poll showed 60% of Utahns are concerned about the future of nature, and 73% support creating new national parks, monuments, wildlife refuges and Tribal protected areas.

One area where Utahns of all political stripes can find agreement is that we need the federal government to increase Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT). This program is intended to compensate states via tax revenue in places where the existence of public lands replaces typical income. Republicans and Democrats, urban and rural voters can all agree that these payments should be increased for localities. Instead of stoking a false narrative about our public lands, I urge Sen. Lee to work with our delegation and make a focused effort to increase this funding to boost and stabilize our economy for the long-term.

Despite the reality that Utahns care about conservation, Lee uses his platform to make deceptive statements about public lands, including that monument designations do not make a place more beautiful or create community opportunities. But clearly, they do. We shouldn’t accept his misleading statements at face value.

The value of protected lands transcends beyond dollars. Protected lands play a critical role in cleaning our air, keeping water resources pristine and keeping safe the delicate balance of biodiversity – an investment in public health and quality of life.

Protecting lands is not a massive trade-off as Lee would have us believe; we can safeguard our public lands and invest in a stronger, diversified economy. As a representative of Utah, I know we face many challenges ahead, but I am calling on my legislative colleagues, the governor, and our congressional leaders to abandon divisive rhetoric about conservation and come together to forge a path forward for the sake of our communities.

State Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Draper

Utah state Rep. Suzanne Harrison, M.D., D-Draper, represents District 32 (adjacent to Uinta Wasatch-Cache National Forest).