Guest Opinions

Federal lands support diverse rural economies in Idaho, West

Idaho has lots of public land for all types of hunting and other activities.
Idaho has lots of public land for all types of hunting and other activities. Statesman file

Around Idaho and the West, cities often are growing rapidly while rural places are being left behind. In urban areas, employment today is higher than before the recession, whereas in rural areas jobs have not yet recovered.

As elected officials discuss how to reinvigorate the rural West, some have pointed to federal lands as the cause of economic struggles.

Headwaters Economics asked whether federal lands are an economic liability or an asset to rural communities. We divided the rural West’s 276 counties into four quarters, according to their share of federal land.

On average, from 1970 to 2014, rural counties in the top quarter of federal land grew much faster than similar counties in the bottom quarter of federal land: Population grew four times faster, employment grew three times faster and personal income grew twice as fast.

This analysis suggests that, in general, federal lands do not inhibit a community’s economic growth. On the contrary, the research suggests these lands have the potential to contribute to a prosperous rural economy.

Federal lands are managed for several objectives, including recreation, water quality and wildlife habitat, as well as revenue from resources. These different management goals can translate into diverse economic opportunities for nearby communities.

First, natural resources support timber, mining, oil and natural gas, and ranching jobs in nearby communities. Second, federal lands are enjoyed by recreational users of all stripes — from backcountry horsemen to snowmobilers to birdwatchers. When these users visit, they spend money at cafes, lodges and outfitters, contributing much-needed revenue to a variety of economic sectors.

Third, federal lands provide a scenic backdrop to many rural places, creating a community-defining, attractive landscape that can draw new residents such as entrepreneurs and retirees who bring new businesses and investments, creating jobs.

The rural Western communities that have been most resilient have capitalized on federal lands in all three ways, blending extractive uses with recreation and tourism, and new residents drawn by the aesthetic values of federal lands.

One community that has taken advantage of its neighboring federal lands in multiple ways is Bonner County. The area’s manufacturing businesses — along with a bustling tourism economy, growing number of retirees and forest products industry — have helped this rural place recover from the recession and grow steadily.

Federal lands alone do not guarantee economic success. Rural towns that have been able to maintain a robust economy also have invested in education and connections to larger markets through broadband networks. Because every community is unique, individual strategies will depend on the area’s historic land use, job skills and vision for their future.

Rural communities’ greatest challenge is to see the economic potential of federal lands through a new lens, developing a strategy that includes existing uses while also considering new opportunities that can improve economic resilience.

Megan Lawson, Ph.D., is an economist at Headwaters Economics, which works to improve community development and land management decisions across the West.