Middle River Dispatches is a gumbo of posts about fly-fishing, conservation, politics and days afield.

The Economics of Protecting Public Lands


Yellowstone National Park

The economic importance of outdoor recreation is a common theme of mine. I believe in it personally and benefit from it professionally. I am a strong proponent of the equation: Habitat equals opportunity which translates into economic activity. For many years the challenge had been to validate the equation.

There are an increasing number of reports showing that equation has increasing merit. Last week Headwaters Economics presented another example.

More than 100 economists and academics sent a letter to President Obama, Senate Majority Leader Reid and House Speaker Boehner, highlighting scientific research showing the positive economic impact protected lands such as Wilderness, National Parks, or National Monuments have for local communities.

The rivers, lakes, canyons, and mountains found on public lands serve as a unique and compelling backdrop that has helped to transform the western economy from a dependence on resource extractive industries to growth from in-migration, tourism, and modern economy sectors such as finance, engineering, software development, insurance, and health care.

Underpinning this letter is peer-reviewed literature.

How western communities and counties can benefit from nearby federal lands has been an issue for local leaders, officials, businesses, and others for generations. This document summarizes a variety of scientific research on the economic impact of protected lands such as Wilderness, National Parks, or National Monuments to nearby communities, especially in the West.

There is a large body of peer-reviewed literature that examines the relationship between land conservation, and local and regional economic well-being. Because of the number of different county types in the West, let alone the entire United States, sweeping declarations about the economic performance of all counties in a region should be scrutinized carefully. It is not surprising that the impact of protected lands such as Wilderness or National Parks is measurable in some places (e.g., isolated rural areas and those rural areas more connected to larger markets and population centers via air travel) but not in others (e.g., metro areas; imagine trying to document the effect of the Sierra Estrella Wilderness to Phoenix’s economy).

What the Research Shows:

  • Protected public lands can and do play an important role in stimulating economic growth — especially when combined with access to markets and an educated workforce — and are associated with some of the fastest growing communities in the West (Rasker 2006).
  • Wilderness designation enhances nearby private property value (Phillips 2004).
  • Wilderness is associated with rapid population, income, and employment growth relative to non-Wilderness counties. Services jobs are increasingly mobile, and many entrepreneurs locate their businesses in areas with a high quality of life (Lorah and Southwick 2003).
  • Conserving lands, which creates a new visibility for them through protective designations, also helps safeguard and highlight the amenities that attract people and businesses (McGranahan 1999).
  • Public lands conservation is associated with more robust population growth (Lewis, Hunt and Plantinga 2002).
  • Another study found that while Wilderness recreation benefits to local communities are modest, the presence of Wilderness appears to draw residents and new economic activity, and has a substantial positive impact on local economies (Rudzitis and Johnson 2000).
  • A study of 250 non-metro counties in the Rocky Mountains found no evidence of job losses associated with Wilderness and no evidence that counties more dependent on logging, mining, and oil and gas suffered job losses as a result of Wilderness designation (DuffyDeno 1998).
  • Outdoor recreation is important to western economies. In New Mexico, the Outdoor Industry Foundation (OIF) reports that active outdoor recreation contributes $3.8 billion annually to the state’s economy, supporting 43,000 jobs. Nationally, OIF estimates an economic impact of $730 billion from active outdoor recreation (bicycling, camping, fishing, hunting, paddling, snow sports, wildlife viewing, and trail-running, hiking, climbing), supporting 6.5 million jobs (Outdoor Industry Foundation 2006).
  • For many seniors and soon-to-be retirees, protected public lands and recreation provide important aspects of a high quality of life. Non-labor sources of income already represent more than a third of all personal income in the West and will grow as the Baby Boomer generation retires (Frey 2006).
  • Protected natural amenities—such as pristine scenery and wildlife—help sustain property values and attract new investment (Deller and Tsai 2001).

These examples are not conjecture. This is peer-reviewed research. Just take a look at the Annotated Bibliography: Economic Value of Public Lands and Protected Public Lands that have Appeared in the Peer-Reviewed Academic Literature.

Headwaters Economic has additional information and resources on their website, Economists Urge President Obama to Protect Federal Public Lands.


  1. This is information that the people of Maine, in particular, the residents of Millinocket and East Millinocket would do well to consider. The research shows that the protection of Wilderness and the creation of national parks has not had an impact on resource extraction, like logging. Rather, their existence has added significant value to the economy. These are options that the people of northern Maine, who are quickly running out of viable options, should rationally consider. The “good old days” of Maine’s pulp industry have gone the way of much of America’s manufacturing. They will not return. It’s time to tune out the empty rhetoric of deluded leadership that still clings to the past, and begin planning for a better future.

  2. Thanks for your comment. I spent many of my formative summers on Moosehead Lake. The hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation is what brought my family there for 3 generations. In those “good old days”, 1940-80, we certainly left a fair amount of money in the local economy.


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