National monuments continue to contribute significantly to Utah’s economy and plans are already being made to get outside as much as possible in 2021. Communities are preparing for a deluge of visitors to local public lands and national parks. And many local outdoor businesses are realizing that while the Covid-19 pandemic impacted their economic sector, it won’t last for much longer and business is primed to boom again and with renewed strength.
As part of a comprehensive agenda to help small businesses and individuals continue to weather the storm while waiting for comprehensive vaccinations by the summer, President Biden is expected to reinstate both Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. This is good for local recreation businesses who’ve watched as their source of income, namely public lands and those who use them, come under fire from the “energy dominance agenda” of the last four years even while the market is still in decline.
Perhaps a historical review is needed to understand why regional natural amenities are so important to economic development. Headwaters Economics, an independent nonprofit research group, has completed 19 economic studies on the regional development of cities and towns located near national monuments. In summary, “important economic indicators—population, employment, personal income, and per-capita income—increased after creation of the monuments.” And while some of these communities resisted the new designation, suggesting a decline in jobs in the area, “the findings show that there is no evidence that the new national monuments prevented economic growth.” While some may doubt the need for new national monument designations, the numbers clearly show the communities near large areas of public land have become healthier and more resilient over time.
The region surrounding the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has seen significant growth since it’s designation in 1996. From the Headwaters Economics report, during the years 2001-2015, Garfield and Kane Counties in Utah saw a 24% increase in jobs, more specifically an increase in service jobs from 3,916 to 5,561. While mining continues to contribute to the local economy, it maintained a 0.4% hold on private employment. These statistics are six years old, but the trend continues unabated. On average jobs near national monuments increase by 8.5% per year and the number of businesses increase by 10% each year, most of these again in the services sectors or those heavily dependent on local travel and tourism on regional public lands. In reality, decreasing the size of National Monuments has a profoundly negative impact on communities and quality of life for residents.
While other nearby economic hubs have been studied for the impacts of national monuments on development, Bears Ears National Monument was immediately impacted by President Trump’s executive order and therefore can only be assessed through the continued growth of the outdoor recreation economy in Utah. In 2019, the tourism industry contributed $9 billion to the state’s economy largely from people visiting the state’s outdoor attractions. Prior to the emergence of Covid-19, Governor Herbert of Utah and Governor Whitmer of Michigan published an op-ed stating that “In Utah, we have seen how a focus on outdoor recreation has boosted economic development, helped us promote physical and mental health for our citizens, and enhanced access to public lands.” This is becoming a commonly accepted fact that Utahns want access to public land free from industrial impacts such as mining and oil and gas leasing, a sentiment strongly supported by the recent move by BLM to cancel over 110k acres of land in Grand County, UT from the September 2020 Oil and Gas Lease sale.
Reinstating Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Bears Ears National Monument will undoubtedly help stabilize the region economically and support continued recovery from the pandemic. Arguably, the resilient nature of the outdoor recreation economy will be foundational to continued economic development and growth, but it will also create a greater sense of well-being and the all-important high quality of life that draw businesses to rural towns and cities. We need work and we need to play—the answer is access to more public land in its natural state, not less.