The Economics of Public Lands

Colorado hunters on horseback preserve a long-standing Western tradition thanks to access to federal public lands. Congressman Scott Tipton's legislative agenda threatens this tradition through a thinly veiled attempt to allow mineral and timber extraction on pristine wildlife habitat.

Colorado hunters on horseback take part in a long-standing Western tradition thanks to access to federal public lands. The Republican legislative agenda threatens this tradition through a thinly veiled attempt to allow mineral and timber extraction on pristine wildlife habitat.

In the 1970s, a vocal minority in the West figured they could do a better job of managing public lands than the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service. Mainly, these freeloading “rebels” didn’t want to pay fees for the right to use taxpayer-owned land – something tens of thousands of ranchers and miners do every day without complaint. This selfish temper tantrum became known as the Sagebrush Rebellion, an illegitimate movement that refused to die. (Click here for more.)

Memory is an interesting thing, and the days of the gold rush seemed to have been forgotten. But Colorado streams flowing with toxic mine waste suddenly became real again in 2015 when the abandoned Gold King Mine blew out and devastated the Animas River in southwestern Colorado. Acidic water laden with heavy metals killed trout, shut down the rafting industry and damaged New Mexico  and Navajo farms.

The state of New Mexico tallied its economic losses from this single spill at $130 million, and if Republicans in Congress succeed in transferring federal land to states, Colorado taxpayers will be responsible for those costs the next time an abandoned mine blows out. Congressional Republicans have already set the stage for transferring millions of acres of public land to state management, jeopardizing Colorado’s economic well-being. Firefighting costs alone would force the state to begin selling land to private corporations for mineral extraction or development, curtailing access to public lands for outdoor recreation, including hunting and fishing.

2014 Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan

A bow hunter scouts an aspen forest for signs of big game.

A bow hunter scouts for signs of big game in a stand of aspen trees on National Forest land. If the legislative agenda of Tea Party Republicans succeeds, hunters will lose access to these lands, wildlife will lose habitat to resource extraction, and Colorado could lose billions of dollars in revenue each year.

Governor John Hickenlooper brought together a diverse group of 34 leaders to study outdoor recreation in Colorado, resulting in the 2014 Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan (SCORP). The study group found that outdoor recreation in Colorado generates some $34 billion annually and employees 300,000 individuals statewide.

As reported in the SCORP: “Colorado’s economy is heavily dependent upon outdoor recreation. Hiking, fishing, snow sports, boating, bicycling and a variety of other activities support more than 300,000 jobs throughout the state and generate over $34 billion each year for Colorado’s economy. When we ask CEOs why they locate their headquarters in Colorado, they resounding reply that outdoor recreation and Colorado’s healthy quality of life are important to them and their employees. The connection between Colorado’s outdoor recreation opportunities, healthy lifestyle and economy is undeniable.”

Backcountry Hunters and Anglers Report

Outdoor Industry Association

The Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) is a national organization of outdoor equipment manufacturers that keeps tabs on the economic impact of outdoor recreation on and around federal lands in all 50 states. Outdoor recreation generates impressive figures:

  • $646 billion in consumer spending.
  • 6.1 million direct American jobs.
  • $399 billion in Federal tax revenue.
  • $39.7 billion in state and local tax revenue.

For Colorado those numbers are

  • $13.2 billion in consumer spending.
  • 125,000 direct Colorado Jobs.
  • $4.2 billion in wages and salaries.
  • $994 million in state and local tax revenue.

A fact sheet from the OIA.

Letter from the OIA to the Republican National Committee.

Headwater Economics

Headwaters Economics is an independent, nonprofit research group that works to improve community development and land management decisions in the West. Rigorous studies performed by credentialed researchers with extensive on-the-ground experience provide the information necessary to inform local and regional decision-making.

Headwaters Economics researchers created this interactive map to show the amount of per capita income explained by protected federal lands for each county in the non-metropolitan Western U.S.

For example, in Montezuma County, Colo., $3,624 or 11 percent of the per capita income can be explained by the presence of 216,427 acres of protected federal lands.

In Archuleta County, 8 percent of per capita income, $2,454, is related to 114,524 acres of protected federal lands.

In Hinsdale County, 29 percent of per capita income, $11,404, is related to 349,303 acres of protected federal lands.

This new county-specific analysis builds on earlier work (West Is Best) by Headwaters Economics that looked at the U.S. West’s 286 non-metro counties as a region, and found a meaningful relationship between the amount of protected public land and higher per capita income levels in 2010.

The Republican Record on Public Lands

A Center for American Progress analysis found that Republican members of the 114th Congress filed at least 44 bills or amendments that attempted to remove protections for parks and public lands, making this Congress the most anti-conservation Congress in recent history. Opposition to this land heist is widespread and bipartisan, but extreme right Republicans paint potential land transfers as a states’ rights issue, but states can’t even afford the annual firefighting budget for these lands, much less the costs to manage recreation and natural resources. In other words, transferring these lands to state control would essentially guarantee their sale to private interests, eliminating public access. 

Do the Math

Any one-time financial gain from selling these lands pales in comparison to the massive revenue streams these lands currently generate for local, state and national economies. The outdoor recreation industry alone, which relies on land access to exist, employs 6.1 million Americans and contributes $650 billion to the economy annually

A 2014 study by the University of Idaho’s Policy Analysis Group found that taking control of federal lands in Idaho could cost the state $111 million a year.

As Andrew McKean writes in Outdoor Life (Dec. 31, 2014), transferring federal lands to state ownership would simply shift an expense currently shouldered by the federal treasury to state treasuries, which would likely be tempted to sell these lands instead of subsidizing their management.

Managing these lands means fighting fires, which cost the feds $700 million in 2012. It also means building fences on Bureau of Land Management grazing allotments ($25 million in Oregon in 2014), maintaining roads on U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service refuges and so on. (For more on the cost of managing public lands, check out the Backcountry Hunters & Anglers’ report here.)

And if federal management goes away, so go the payment in lieu of taxes (PILT) subsidies to counties across the West. In 2014, PILT payments exceeded $34.5 million in Colorado; across the West, PILT payments totaled just under $240 million.

Politicians who support public land transfers either can’t do the math that shows how crucial public lands are to the Colorado economy, or their math is all about doing favors for big business to fill their campaign coffers.

‘Pretty Crazy’

Firefighting costs in excess of $100 million, loss of federal payments to counties and higher grazing fees for ranchers are just some of the reasons former Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation Director Mary Sexton called the land transfer idea “pretty crazy.”

As John Hamill writes for the Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, even people frustrated with current federal land management policies recognize that states don’t have the funds to responsibly manage public lands.

‘A Brilliantly Bad Idea’

David Petersen, a former Marine Corps officer, award-winning writer and founder of Colorado Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, believes a state land-grab “is enough to be called treason” (The Durango Herald, April 18, 2015). It takes little investigation, he writes, to recognize that such a transfer “defines a brilliantly bad idea.” Just managing wildfires on federal lands cost the federal government $1.74 billion in 2013, so Peterson believes states receiving land transfers would have to immediately start leasing and selling the land just to make ends meet. Citizens who flock to public lands for recreation and relaxation would be left with no access to lands owned by all Americans.

The costs of one Colorado wildfire season totaled $92 million in 2012. By comparison, the Colorado State Land Board currently manages about 2.8 million acres on a $5 million budget. Adding 24 million acres would add huge new state expenses (Conservation Colorado, Jan. 27, 2015).

‘Only the Rich’

As one writer points out, “The cost of overseeing all this federal land is shared by everyone who pays taxes. Reduce that to, oh let’s say the number of people who pay taxes in Montana, about 500,000, and all of a sudden that land becomes a burden. When the burden becomes too big, politicians look for ways to remedy the situation. Let’s sell some land! Now only the rich own the land and the common person either can’t use it or has to pay for the privilege of using it” (Rick Moose, The Buffalo News, May 24, 2015).

‘Wanna see Corruption?’

“You wanna see corruption? Wait until the states have the power to ‘sell’ (give away) land to people who make the biggest campaign contributions.” (John Childs & Jon Sweeney, The Buffalo News, May 24, 2015).

Treasonous or corrupt, either way, too many congressmen are on the wrong side of the public lands issue. Please stand with us before these short-sighted politicians and their corporate sponsors lock us out of the places that make Colorado special.