Guest Opinions

Of economics and the Owyhee Canyonlands

Federal lands across Idaho and the West have played a key economic role for local communities for generations. As the economy changes in the 21st Century, a key question is how these lands can be managed today to provide continued benefits.

This issue is raised again over the Owyhee Canyonlands in nearby Malheur County, Ore. Idaho has protected its Owyhee region and now Oregonians are considering a proposal to permanently protect roughly 2.5 million acres in southeastern Oregon (“Effort on to protect Oregon’s Owyhee Canyonlands,” Sept. 17).

This rural region, known for its livestock and crops, also is home to 4.6 million acres of federal land — much of it possessing unique natural and recreational values.

Malheur County has struggled economically for decades and trails in important performance measures — such as job growth and earnings — compared to other rural counties in the state and across the West. These economic difficulties stem from larger trends that have brought fierce competition from abroad and the automation of many jobs in sectors such as agriculture.

And while newer services industries and government are creating some jobs, it has not been enough to bring greater prosperity to the county’s communities.

Today, however, the county has a rare opportunity: the ability to continue its agricultural tradition while capitalizing on its abundant federal land by protecting a portion of it as a National Monument or Recreation Area.

To understand what impact this could have on the region, Headwaters Economics recently studied the relationship between Western rural counties and federal protected lands, and compared Malheur County to similar counties with large protected areas.

The research is encouraging. Rural Western counties with more than 30 percent of their land base as national parks, national monuments or other protected federal lands saw employment grow four times faster from 1970 to 2010 than Western rural counties with no protected federal land.

There also is a meaningful relationship between the amount of protected public land and higher per capita income levels. On average in 2010, for every gain of 10,000 acres of protected public land in a rural Western county, per capita income increased by $436.

When comparing Malheur County to peers with permanent federal land protections, we found these other counties on average grew faster, sustained agricultural employment better, experienced less economic hardship, and benefited from greater travel and tourism business activity.

The economic role of public land in the West has shifted. Natural resource commodities remain important, though their relative economic significance has declined as the broader economy has expanded.

Meanwhile, the economic advantages of protected areas for rural Western counties are increasing. Protected public lands are tied to growing recreational activities as well as scenic backgrounds that attract people and businesses across a range of economic sectors.

Protecting natural assets is not the only element needed for rural economic success. But there is evidence they can help, especially when area communities and businesses embrace the opportunity and work to enhance other factors such as better educational opportunities and improved access to markets.

Ben Alexander is the associate director of Headwaters Economics, an independent, nonprofit research group that works to improve community development and land management decisions in the West.