Public lands vital to local economies

The Hill

It has often been said that people must speak out in defense of our common land, since it cannot speak for itself. In light of recent attempts to undermine federal protection of public lands, this is true now more than ever. Some lawmakers are pushing for the privatization of federal lands: a recent budgetary amendment would allow states to sell national forest land. But what many policymakers don’t realize is that public lands aren’t just beautiful places to visit or environmental havens—they are vital to local economies and small businesses across the country. While we recognize our great outdoors during National Parks Week, let’s take a look at the role these lands play in the success of small businesses and our economy.

Small Business Majority just released an economic report that shows America’s public lands strengthen economies and job markets in the West, drawing in tourists and new residents alike that boost the economy and local businesses. Public lands are critical to local economies because they promote outdoor recreational activities that generate more than $255 billion in revenue and contribute to a vast 2.3 million jobs.

And Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit research group, found that between 1970 and 2010, rural counties in the West with a large share of public lands increased jobs by 345 percent—four times faster than rural counties with no federally-protected public lands. It’s clear that public lands and the tourism dollars they promote help drive growth in local communities, and small business owners in the West are taking note. Small Business Majority’s opinion polling in select Western states found nearly two-thirds of small business owners believe designating new national parks and monuments would enhance local jobs and the economy, and a sweeping 90 percent believe public spaces that attract tourists can boost business for local restaurants, hotels, grocery stores and more.

Some policymakers are attempting to pass ownership of some federal lands to the states to allow for the privatization of these lands. For example, Senate lawmakers recently passed S.A. 838—a budgetary amendment tied to discussions of the 2016 federal budget that would allow states to sell off parcels of national forests, wildlife refuges and wildernesses. And while this amendment does not carry the force of law, it signals that policymakers are ignoring broad support for the continued protection of federal lands in favor of allowing some states to reap a short-term profit. But small businesses feel otherwise and are speaking out about the importance of federally-protected lands.

“Continuing federal protection of public lands is a chance for our government to show that they can do something for all Americans to enjoy,” said John Crandall, owner of Old Town Bike Shop in Colorado Springs, Co. “As the owner of a small bike shop, I know how important our area’s parks and public lands are to our local economy and small business community. Our vast parks and trails and proximity to the Rocky Mountains bring people into our community from all over, which is good for our economy and local small businesses.”

Small Business Majority’s economic report outlines some actions policymakers can take now to protect our public lands and give a boost to local economies. This includes granting permanent federal protection to areas like Berryessa Snow Mountain in northern California, and reauthorizing and fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which receives its funding from fees paid by oil and gas companies drilling offshore and protects national forests and parks. Additionally, the federal government should begin formally tracking jobs in the outdoor recreation industry so this sector’s impact on the economy can be better understood.

Preserving our natural assets is good for business, plain and simple. Washington needs to stop playing politics with our nation’s natural assets and continue protecting our public lands, and with them local economies, now.

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