DeFrates column: Outdoor recreation is an important player in the public lands debate
Since 1872, when Yellowstone became the world’s first national park, the debate over how to manage public lands has ebbed and flowed. Every new administration has provided its own threats, promises and executive actions to the discourse. From the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 to the Sagebrush Rebellion in the late ’70s, to the on-going Obama/Trump conflict regarding national monument designation, western states have always been at the center of the issue. The conflicts arise from the question of who should own these sweeping tracts of land — private interests or state or federal government. And along with the management debate, balancing the use of the land with the need to preserve vs. the need to produce becomes a complex, nuanced and touchy argument. So naturally, a false dichotomy has been firmly established between sides that prefer mutually exclusive rhetoric to compromise and common ground.
Each political party is assigned its side and the ringside bell clangs. Conservatives stump for more state management and less regulation for extraction industries, while liberals gnash their teeth about the potential loss of pristine wilderness and the devastation it would have on future generations.
Once again, the usual suspects are toeing their respective party lines to hash out the latest debate in the form of those national monument designations, Paris Accords and whatever is happening in the National Park Service. With more than 35 percent of our own state’s acreage under the management of the federal government, the current national debate involves Colorado’s literal backyard. Our Democrat governor has made his stance clear to both fervent praise and righteous condemnation.
Same old contenders, same old punches, right? Maybe not this time.
In the centuries-old public lands match-up, there is a new, burly contender who is finally starting to throw its weight around. This previously gentle giant in public land use debate has been quietly bulking up for years and now boasts some impressive stats: $887 billion in consumer spending annually, 7.6 million American jobs, $65.3 billion in federal tax revenue and $7.2 billion in tax revenue for states in the mountain west region. And it’s ready to step into the ring.
I’m talking about the outdoor recreation industry. Yes, the mountain biking, kayaking, camping, fly fishing, rock climbing dirtbags who inhabit the woods every weekend. According to a recent study by the Outdoor Industry Association, along with their moisture-wicking layers, those people carry with them enough of an economic right hook to shatter many of the previous notions and established party lines of the debate. Not only do these outdoor enthusiasts play for adrenaline and use a huge amount of domain-specific vocabulary, they also buy copious amounts of expensive gear, travel obsessively, get hired to cart tourists around our beautiful public lands, manufacture Yeti coolers and sell each other full-suspension downhill bikes that are worth more than cars.
Even Washington caught a whiff of earning potential a few years back and passed the Rec Act in 2016. That monitors this sector’s growth in the same way they keep tabs on technology, oil/gas and numerous other high producing niches to inform future policy decisions.
What makes this new player so interesting to such a stale debate is that, even though the outdoor recreation industry has been assigned to the “left” side, it plays a role that satisfies many of both parties’ land management priorities. Outdoor recreation creates sustainable economic growth while also requiring that we preserve our country’s unique public lands. None of the billions of tax dollars we rely on in Colorado would be possible if every trail was blocked by private property signs and abandoned well pads.
We are talking about job creation by land and environmental preservation. No longer are those two goals polar opposites. The non-motorized outdoor recreation activities we are talking about also do not tax the land like overgrazing (going back to the Taylor Act), or tap out the resource completely, in the case of mineral extraction. The jobs provided are varied and well paying, and are sustainable for generations to come.
None of this is to say we should do away with energy and extraction industries. How could we? Besides the fact that my computer wouldn’t have enough charge to write this without them, they are another part of the land use debate, and also provide jobs and essential local tax revenue.
So why are we not hearing more about this new player both from national pundits and in our own friendly, barside discussions? This winter Outdoor Retailer took its lucrative trade show out of its long-time home in Salt Lake City in protest to the Utah administration’s stance on Bear Ears National Monument. Even so, few people talk about the rec industry as a serious economic contender. Anchors and media personalities still draw the same lines in the sand on their 24-hour news cycles, and support the either/or arguments of the past.
We have the opportunity to recognize the potential of the land we have been gifted by visionary individuals of the past. But we have to recognize the need for balance and well-informed, nonpartisan discussion. And for those who immediately jump on the “state control” bandwagon of conservatism, what about the immense cost of managing more than 35 percent of our state’s acreage? Sure, we could sell off the easy-to-reach bits for a tidy profit, and lease the rest to extraction. But that is a short-term strategy with untold hidden costs. Yet, by allowing these lands to remain protected (and managed) by the feds, we generate our own tidy profit in state tax revenues, provide entry and advanced level positions to a huge population of the state, preserve our land trust and encourage the creation of myriad small businesses.
One can no longer discuss the future of public lands in the West without accounting for the needs of recreation. The voters of Colorado need to wake up and realize where exactly we are getting our bread buttered, and if those job numbers and tax income sound appealing, then public lands need to at the center of our future plans.
Lindsay DeFrates of Carbondale writes a monthly column.
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