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My wife and I recently ventured from our Missoula home for a two-week road trip to the Southwest. The excursion took us deep into Utah’s majestic canyon country and the West’s ongoing clash over our federal public lands, a conflict recently inflamed by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s recommendation to shrink a number of our national monuments.

Our first stop was Salt Lake City, which was coming to terms with the decision by the Outdoor Retailer trade show — known as “OR” — to relocate its annual event to Denver after 20 years in Salt Lake City. The move was provoked by Utah’s state and federal officials repeatedly lobbying to reduce regulations on federal public lands and give control to state government.

Advocates for the transfer of public lands clearly expect states would provide less environmental protection and allow increased mining, drilling and clearcutting. While relaxed regulations may benefit specific companies in the short-term, those activities undermine the land’s value in other ways.

Support for preserving these public assets was abundant in Salt Lake City, including “Save Bears Ears” signs, referencing the recently established national monument that Zinke has recommended shrinking. But these were city-dwellers, not the rural folks whose jobs and lives are more traditionally entwined with mines, wells and timber companies. I suspected the displays in favor of public lands would dwindle as we continued South.

I was wrong. As we drove twisting back roads between the small towns around Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, we saw posters in shop windows, hand-painted yard signs. Businesses posted petitions urging Utah politicians to not kill the golden goose that has invigorated their communities. And T-shirts made by the Bear Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition demonstrated support from Native Americans whose past is documented on canyon walls throughout the monument.

Locals clearly see the benefits of protection dwarfing those from extractive non-renewable uses, and the research agrees.

The Montana research organization Headwaters Economics has studied this issue extensively and drawn clear conclusions. Rural communities with more protected lands consistently perform better economically than their neighbors. Importantly, that economic growth is not one-dimensional. Headwaters calls these lands “an important economic asset that extends beyond tourism and recreation to attract people and businesses,” supporting broad-based community development.

Montanans have long recognized this. When a broadly representative group of citizens convened to rewrite the state Constitution, ratified in 1972, they created a chapter enshrining the citizens’ right to a "clean and healthful environment."

More recently, Gov. Steve Bullock announced the creation of an Office of Outdoor Recreation to better support outdoor businesses. According to a study by the Outdoor Industry Association, outdoor recreation in Montana produced $7.1 billion in consumer spending last year, 71,000 direct jobs, $2.2 billion in wages and salaries and $286 million in state and local tax revenue, making it one of the state’s top economic sectors by any measurement.

And that’s just one industry. Many others depend, directly or indirectly, on the natural landscape. And our state’s pro-entrepreneur reputation grows in part from our commitment to environmental health. Zach Millar, co-owner of the Dram Shop, a tap room in Missoula, says protecting public lands also protects his business: “Public lands are a big reason our customers live here. The equation is simple: without customers, we have no business."

Across the West, efforts to open public lands to greater resource extraction are being met with an increased awareness about the threat that agenda poses. Robust public lands protections don’t just benefit the environment; they serve people, local businesses and the economies on which we all depend.

-- Drew Callaghan, of Missoula, is the outreach specialist for the American Independent Business Alliance. 


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