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Study finds that rural counties with federal lands are better off

Gunnison County part of the data set

By Alissa Johnson

A new study incorporating data from Gunnison County has found that western rural counties with federal lands tend to perform better in key economic categories, including job and income growth.

Conducted by Headwaters Economics, a non-profit in Missoula, Mont., the study aimed to shed light on whether federal lands and protected federal lands hinder or help when it comes to economic growth.

Megan Lawson, an economist with Headwaters Economics, said the impetus for the study grew out of the ongoing conflict around federal land management and the central role that question can play.

“There’s a lot of rhetoric on either side, so as a research organization, we see our role as the people who are willing to dig into the data and see what’s actually going on in rural counties,” Lawson said.

She explained that Headwaters Economics focuses on improving land management decisions and public policy for public lands—primarily in the West—and in particular looks at the impacts of land management on the communities near public lands.

For this study, Headwaters analyzed data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, which has collected annual economic estimates for every county in the United States going back to 1970. The study considered rural counties from 11 states across the west, including Colorado.

“We wanted to go back as long as possible … to even out the booms and busts and bigger economic recessions as well as the booms and busts in mining sectors, oil and gas, the timber industry and particularly agriculture,” Lawson said.

The results were clear: Western rural counties with the highest share of federal lands saw faster growth in population, employment, personal income, and per capita income growth on average. Counties with the most protected federal lands also performed better in the same categories.

In Gunnison County specifically, the data shows a 104 percent increase in population, a 358 percent increase in employment, a 423 percent increase in personal income and 146 percent growth in per capita income between 1970 and 2014.

Lawson is careful to emphasize that the study shows correlation, not causation.

“It’s an average, so you can of course find places that contradict that average, and we’re not suggesting that federal lands cause economic growth. But from our results, it seems that federal lands don’t impede economic growth,” she said.

The data doesn’t necessarily reflect a person’s experience, either. Reactions to the study have been mixed and tend to vary with how well a community is faring.

“We’ve gotten some phone calls from people for whom the results from the data don’t match their day-to-day experience on the ground … They say, ‘You’re saying we’ve grown but we’re struggling, we’re poor, and we’re losing jobs,’“ Lawson said.

Understandably, more recent bumps in the road carry more weight for these callers than the long-term averages. According to Lawson, the idea is to give people a more objective look at long-term trends and food for thought.

“We have gotten a lot of interest from communities in the middle—not necessarily resort communities that already know the value of federal lands as an amenity to attract visitors—but places that aren’t sure what to think. Maybe they have timber and mining industries but also have some tourism [and they’re] trying to figure out a different way to capitalize on those federal lands,” Lawson said.

Lawson hopes the research gives people an opportunity to think about different and more diverse ways to capitalize on public lands. “When you see economic diversity is when you see more resilient communities that are able to weather booms and busts.”

More information about the study is available at http://headwaterseconomics.org/public-lands/federal-lands-performance.

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