Friends of Northwest Colorado: Conservation and the economy - Part 2

In the first part of this series about conservation and the economy, we considered some of the challenges in determining the value to place on a range of natural resources such as air, water and public lands, among others.

Despite the challenges to assigning market values to these types of resources, it is becoming increasingly important, especially as communities face difficult economic conditions.

A powerful recent example of a report evaluating the value of conservation was developed by economists working for The Wilderness Society.

Their paper, called "Natural Dividends," uses the term natural dividends to describe the dollar values of natural amenities to an economy.

"Natural Dividends" reviews literature on the relationship between rural economies and natural amenities to better understand the importance of a healthy environment to economic prosperity for people in the Rocky Mountain West (an area that is composed of six states). The authors also issued a fact sheet with data specific to Colorado from which we draw our information.

Surprisingly, the report showed that farming and ranching, mining, oil and gas extraction, and timber each provide less than 2 percent of personal income.

This finding is for the whole of Colorado, and some of our Northwest Colorado communities, like Craig in Moffat County or Meeker in Rio Blanco County, are more than 2 percent.

Nonetheless, even in our region, a CSU Economic Development report found that mining and utilities were each responsible for only 10 percent, or 20 percent combined, of employment.

Jobs in Colorado now are primarily derived from professional and service sectors and nonlabor earnings such as investment and retirement income.

Extractive industry income has declined in the past 30 years.

Even during the recent regional boom in natural gas production, industry has been a contributor but not a primary economic driver.

This isn't to say that these industries are inconsequential or that traditional customs and cultures should be thrown aside. Rather, that data is pointing to the fact that they are a part of our economic portfolio, but we must view other sectors that are crucial economic drivers.

Key economic indicators are showing the important role of hunting, fishing, outdoor recreation and tourism in giving rise to small businesses.

The total economic contribution of nonhunting outdoor recreation is $10 billion nationwide, and hunting and wildlife watching contributed $2.4 billion to Colorado alone, according to a report published by the state Division of Wildlife in September 2008.

Of this revenue, according to the same report, more than $30 million comes into Moffat County annually, primarily from hunting generated revenue.

In Moffat County, local business leaders have capitalized on this market by branding Craig as the "Elk Hunting Capital of the World."

There are a number of other amazing natural amenities that Moffat County and the region as a whole have to offer including our vast public and protected lands. Attracting new businesses to our region has, and will continue, to rely on clever marketing of our natural amenities.

Research examined for the "Natural Dividends" report, shows that real per capita income in isolated rural counties with protected land grows faster than in isolated counties without any protected lands. The amount of protected land and the overall health of our environment have a direct relationship to our ability to benefit from hunting, tourism and recreation, and appeal to those people and businesses who want these amenities.

Simply put, local communities benefit when nearby public lands are protected. The amenities found on these lands attract small business owners who bring jobs and revenue to communities.

Retirees also are attracted to places with abundant natural amenities that include opportunities for recreation, clean air, clean water and abundant wildlife. These amenities enhance an area's quality of life, raise the appeal of a location to new businesses, retirees, and educated, talented workers.

Regional economic reports show that economic diversity relies on the protection of our natural resources to preserve tourism, recreation and our quality of life. Put another way, conservation keeps a diverse range of jobs in our communities.

Healthy environments are powerful economic drivers. We are discovering that not only can we have both healthy economies and conserve the environment, but that our economy benefits from conservation.

As communities, we may have to make choices between short-term profits and long-term gains. Pinedale Wyoming recently was profiled on a major national news network because of its low unemployment.

When Pinedale town council member David Smith came to Craig in late 2008, he explained that his town's current success is coming at a terrible cost to the tradition and future of their community.

The town's mule deer herd has been reduced by more than 40 percent with antelope, elk and sage grouse populations also coming under threat. Its ranching, hunting and tourism sectors have taken a huge hit leaving many to wonder, what will become of Pinedale when oil and gas is gone?

In our region, Meeker in particular, has the potential to go down a similar road due to large gas reserves and potential commercial oil shale development. If so, what will Meeker's future look like 20 years down the road?

We are not in any way, shape or form suggesting that the mines be closed, the power plants shuttered or that we run all the natural gas rigs off the landscape. They have and will continue to play an important role to our economy and in our communities.

However, we also must recognize that we depend on our natural amenities - clean air, water, quality outdoor recreation and hunting and fishing opportunities.

If we can agree on this, then we can map out an approach that encourages sustainable and responsible growth that does not adversely impact the natural amenities upon which our communities also depend.

We must continually strive for balance for our local communities, by finding a middle road between development and conservation so that we can provide for an economy prosperous now and into a sustainable future.

In the next parts of this series, we further will consider the value of our region's natural dividends by exploring some of the opportunities and challenges in our region for new green and renewable energies, carbon trading and sustainable business.

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