Environmental reps discuss economic benefits of protected lands, ecotourism in Moffat County | CraigDailyPress.com

Environmental reps discuss economic benefits of protected lands, ecotourism in Moffat County

Brian Smith

Sasha Nelson, northwest organizer for the Colorado Environmental Coalition, contends there is a deeper, often forgotten meaning to what is commonly thought of as natural resources.

“Natural resources are more than minerals,” she said Wednesday. “The natural resources are the air we breathe, the land we walk upon and the water that flows through our country.

“At times, we get caught up in the conversation (and) we forget about those resources and that they’re part of the system, as well.”

Nelson and her CEC colleague, Luke Schafer, and The Wilderness Society’s Soren Jespersen spoke Wednesday during a Craig/Moffat Economic Development Partnership meeting.

The focus of their presentation centered on economic benefits fostered from preserving certain lands and possibly developing eco-tourism.

“Our natural resources here in the county offer us an ability to continue to grow, build and earn wealth in our community,” Nelson said. “We have a lot of untapped potential here.”

Nelson spoke about the already prominent Northwest Colorado hunting industry and said it contributes about $30 million to the Moffat County economy.

However, Nelson said there is more potential in driving or supplementing the local economy based on the local wildlife and natural resources than is currently being utilized.

Nelson used a recent CEC and TWS eco-tourism project as an example.

In the spring, the organizations organized a trip for tourists to see greater sage grouse perform mating rituals on leks in the county.

Nelson said within two weeks, the 85 spaces for the trip had been filled.

In addition to bringing the tourists to town, Nelson said the two groups worked with local hotels to give a discount to those who signed up for the trip.

“The day after we advertised those discounts and advertised the trips, I immediately got a call from (a hotel owner) thanking me because they had seen an immediate bump in their revenue and bookings,” she said.

Nelson said the sage grouse trip is an example that “shows that we have some untapped potential out there.”

Schafer, CEC’s northwest campaign coordinator, said the county should be looking at opportunities to make the local economy stronger and ensure it is thriving for future generations.

“We know what we have, but what other opportunities are out there?” he said. “What do we need to start shifting our focus on a little bit?”

Jespersen agreed, adding the Bureau of Land Management’s decision to close the 77,000-acre Vermillion Basin to energy development in its resource management plan is positive for the local economy.

“The Vermillion Basin decision will help the economy of Moffat County and Craig grow,” he said. “Studies conclusively show that rural communities that protect their public lands grow faster both in terms of population and economy … than rural communities that don’t have any protected lands.”

Using Steamboat Springs as an example, Jespersen said many businesses locate to an area, in most cases, not because of an economic incentive, but rather for the quality of life.

“Entrepreneurs, retirees and businesses are attracted to communities with protected public lands for their quality of life,” he said.

EDP board member Scott Cook asked the three if it was wise to diversify the local economy with “something that will lower the average income here?”

“I think we are a little bit concerned (with) the jobs you guys talk about,” he said. “The diversification would be a little bit like us trying to recruit a call center that pays everybody $9 per hour. That income is not even what the average income is here.”

EDP director Darcy Trask said it has been the group’s goal for many years to work toward a diverse local economy.

However, Trask said, the group has been “beaten up” for not being largely successful in that aspect. But, that doesn’t mean EDP isn’t continuing to work toward that goal, she said.

“They have been paying people with checks from their own businesses to go out and beat the bushes and look for that diverse business to come here,” Trask said of EDP members.