Guest Columnist: A protected Vermillion Basin strengthens NW Colorado economy |

Guest Columnist: A protected Vermillion Basin strengthens NW Colorado economy

Michelle Haefele

The Bureau of Land Management's Little Snake Field Office in Craig recently announced that as part of the land management plan for the area, it would be setting aside around 77,000 acres of Vermillion Basin to protect the area's outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values.

Despite the fact that the plan would leave open more than two million acres outside of Vermillion Basin to oil and gas development, the Moffat County Commission, their friends in the oil and gas industry, and even Congressman John Salazar have come out in opposition to this relatively minor change in management.

According to these folks, the only economic benefit our public lands provide is through oil and gas development and any attempt to balance this type of development with the innumerable other economic drivers that public lands provide isn't worth the effort.

The fact is that a protected Vermillion Basin is an economic asset for Moffat County and all of Northwest Colorado.

This spectacular landscape of rainbow-colored canyons, sweeping cliffs, and countless prehistoric and cultural artifacts is the center of a region that along with the other beautiful and protected public lands in the vicinity, draw residents, retirees, and businesses to the area, strengthening and diversifying the local economy and insulating it from the inevitable boom and bust cycles which inevitably plague single industry economies.

Vermillion Basin also provides irreplaceable recreation and other important intangible attributes that contribute to the quality of life in the region. These non-market values may not be as easy to tally up as oil and gas dollars, but they are nevertheless an important part of Northwest Colorado's economy.

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As an economist, I continually see evidence of the true value of our public lands.

Counties with high levels of natural amenities are more likely to experience both greater economic growth and increased population than counties with fewer such amenities.

Many counties in the rural West, like Moffat County, are isolated from larger markets and this often hinders economic growth.

However, studies show that such out-of-the-way counties with abundant protected wildlands actually grew faster than similar counties without protected lands — clearly these lands and the amenities they provide can help Northwest Colorado overcome and capitalize on its remoteness.

Income and employment growth are consistently higher in counties with a high level of entrepreneurship, a highly-educated workforce and a large number of creative occupations. The natural beauty and open space provided by Vermillion Basin and other protected areas attract these types of residents bringing ideas, investment income and small businesses to the region.

An economy needs to be diverse to thrive. This has been shown time and again — when a region is dependent on only one industry for most of its economic activity, it is always more vulnerable to changes in that industry.

On the other hand, a wide variety of industries means that workers displaced by a downturn in one industry can often be absorbed by another. When there is only one show in town, everyone loses when the tent folds.

Unfortunately, the Moffat County Commissioners and others seemingly refuse to see the benefits that a balanced public land management could provide. Oil and gas drilling is especially prone to boom and bust development. Drilling activity is driven entirely by the price of the resource – when natural gas prices drop, companies shut in wells and curtail their drilling. This cycle is completely outside the control of Moffat County, meaning that the potential jobs are not guaranteed at all. What is guaranteed, however, are the costs associated with oil and gas development.

Western communities learned 20 years ago that boom-times are not all good times.

While there may be new jobs and income flowing in, communities experiencing a boom in oil and gas drilling also experience social upheaval as drilling crews and workers migrate into the area. Most oil and gas jobs occur during the drilling of wells and these are almost always taken by non-local workers from outside the region who travel with the rigs – bringing all kinds of problems that threaten the landscape and local lifestyle.

With an influx of workers, housing often becomes unaffordable and difficult to find, creating problems for long-term residents and migrating gas-field workers alike.

The influx of workers brings an increase in crime, domestic violence, drug abuse and other social problems, resulting in economic costs and other impacts. Drill rigs are dangerous places to work, which means more demand for costly emergency services.

And simply providing basic services for a rapidly growing population places added financial burdens on local governments during booms. Roads that were built to handle smaller volumes of traffic are now seeing more accidents and are requiring more frequent, costly repairs. Other services are also often strained beyond their capacity.

Once-quiet ranching, farming, or tourist towns have become unrecognizable by long-time residents. In some cases, the presence of gas wells has caused property values to decline, ruining people's homes and investments.

And let's not forget that oil and gas drilling is hard on the land.

Moffat County is renowned for its world-class hunting, which brings income to Northwest Colorado, but which also requires habitat to be viable. The roads, well-pads, noise and traffic associated with oil and gas drilling damages habitat, drives away wildlife and reduces the satisfaction of hunting.

Finally, forgotten in all the hoopla about safeguarding Vermillion — almost the entire field office is open for oil and gas drilling. Oil and gas companies stand to make more than $15 billion from the portion of the Little Snake Resource Management Area that is open to drilling.

Setting aside a small area as a refuge from the clamor and bustle of industrial development will be beneficial to the economy of Northwest Colorado, and begins to bring some balance to the management of these lands that belong to all Americans.

Today's guest columnist can be reached at

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