Friends of Northwest Colorado: Conservation and the economy |

Friends of Northwest Colorado: Conservation and the economy

David Morris, Jane Yazzie and Rick Hammel

Editor’s note: Below is the first of a four-part series submitted by the Friends of Northwest Colorado. The remaining parts will be published in future editions of the Saturday Morning Press.

Green Economy, the New Energy Economy, Natural Dividends, Sustainable Growth, Amenities/Life Style Economy and Sustainable Business – they are all the new buzzwords being bandied about regarding 21st century economic development and diversification.

What do they mean for us?

How does Northwest Colorado capitalize on our natural resources to keep our economies diverse and strong, our land, air, water, wildlife and heritage healthy?

A multi-part series about conservation and the economy will examine the relationship between natural resource conservation and the regional economy of Northwest Colorado.

The goal of this series is to foster a discussion regarding key environmental-economic principles and opportunities as they relate to Moffat, Routt and Rio Blanco counties.

It is our hope that we can all become more knowledgeable about these important issues, further a collaborative dialogue in our communities and understand how to position our communities for success.

Economic growth and environmental conservation are often erroneously pitted against one another.

Do we have to risk the future of a healthy natural environment to grow our economies?

Of course not.

Claims made that strong economies cause environmental degradation and that environmental protection weakens the economy are just plain wrong.

Healthy economies are diverse economies and diverse economies are increasingly the economies looking to sustainable, green and environmentally friendly development options as the way to future prosperity.

In a 2003 letter sent to the president and the governors of the Western states, signed by 100 economists from universities, including nine economists from Colorado’s universities, it stated among other things that, “the West’s natural environment is, arguably, its greatest long-run economic strength.”

Recent economic reports indicate that, as a region, our economy is relatively diverse.

According to Yampa Valley Partners 2009 Community Indicators Report, construction, accommodation, food and retail services, real estate, and mining are the strongest economic drivers for our regional economies.

While the region is diverse, each community relies on a couple of dominate drivers.

Routt County relies heavily on tourism; Rio Blanco County relies heavily on mining and the oil and gas industry; and Moffat County relies heavily on mining and utilities.

It is appropriate to consider the region as a whole in part because Moffat, Routt and Rio Blanco counties are, according to Yampa Valley Partners, increasingly interdependent because of the shared demand for work force, housing, transportation and other infrastructure.

Unfortunately, this report, like most others, does not provide enough information to determine the value to our economy of our natural resources.

Natural resources are more than coal, oil, gas and other minerals. Natural resources include environmental resources such as air, water, land, wildlife, lands of special value, as well as the hydrocarbons under the ground.

Yampa Valley Partners’ project relies on a range of data sources, including the U.S. Census, the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado, and the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

These organizations do not traditionally distinguish income and savings derived from healthy natural environmental resource and have rarely looked at non-market valuation as a metric to understand the value of conservation and preservation.

Socio-economic reports often struggle to include environmental-economic data in part because historically, economists have struggled to illustrate the direct value of healthy environments.

Economists can illustrate, for example, that people will pay more to live in areas with more recreational opportunities. This is difficult to translate into an assigned dollar figure for a specific non-mineral resource or area.

Additionally, conservationists have occasionally been reluctant to put a price tag on clean land, air, water and wildlife. This has often led to some industrial interests perpetuating the idea that we have to choose between “protections” and “progress,” which simply isn’t a choice that we have to make.

The challenge for our region is to gain a more complete understanding of our environment and conservation of that environment as an economic driver.

Such information would help to understand the economic challenges and opportunities of such things as reclamation, green energy and carbon trading for our region.

What is the value of clean air, soil and reliable supplies of water and activities, such as hiking, cycling, wildlife watching, hunting and the benefits provided by our high quality of life in terms of dollars and cents? What are the costs if our activities degrade our land, air and water?

In the next part of this series, we will consider how economists and communities are re-thinking the value placed on natural resources.

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