Letters From the West

Idaho’s public lands are key economic asset, economist says

Idaho's White Cloud Mountains are among the state's most beloved areas and are under consideration as a national monument.

Idaho’s White Cloud Mountains are among the state’s most beloved areas and are under consideration as a national monument.

The highest value of Idaho’s public land economically doesn’t come from mining, logging, ranching or tourism, economist Ray Rasker said.

Its primary value is as an magnet for companies and their most creative and educated employees, Rasker told the Boise City Club and Idaho Environmental Forum Thursday.

“It’s a way to attract talent,” Rasker said.

Rasker’s message was not lost on Idaho Commerce Secretary Jeff Sayer. He and his staff highlight the open space in its business recruitment efforts.

“The value of the recreation and lifestyle we have here is one of our strongest attractions,” Sayer said.

Rasker, director of Headwaters Economics in Bozeman, Mont., said in the modern economy communities that thrive are able to attract the high wage segment of the service economy. Another major driver of job creation is the infusion of people who have their own investments, retirement income, and health care benefits.

His example is his own backyard, the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, 18 million acres surrounding Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. Its economic and population growth rivals other high technology growth areas in the nation including Silicon Valley and the Puget Sound.

Since 1990 its population has grown 45 percent. Jobs have risen 69 percent and personal income grew more than 100 percent. Idaho’s personal income as a whole had grown by about 55 percent during that time and now sits at 49th nationally.

Rasker said he couldn’t answer why Idaho, the lower 48 state with the most public land –64 percent of its landmass– is so low in personal income. But he provided a few hints.

Simply having wilderness, national parks and national monuments won’t have a major impact on your local economy if you are an isolated rural community like St. Maries or Council, his research showed. These communities, which that have wilderness and national monuments, but only have limited access to good air service, don’t show much economic benefit.

Timing also is an issue. Protected areas don’t improve economic health in communities during recessions, such as the last six years. But communities that have a high percentage of college graduates weathered the recession better.

Only 25 percent of Idaho’s high school graduates receive a college degree.

“When things go bad it really pays to have an educated work force,” Rasker said.

Rasker’s research underscores what economists have been saying since the 1980s. But still many western political leaders dismiss the value of public lands, wilderness and national monuments. Idaho lawmakers are joining Utah and other western states in exploring the takeover of federal lands.

Rasker was skeptical the states could cover the fixed costs of providing fire protection and other services now paid for by taxpayers nationwide. But he doubted the effort will go anywhere legally.

Part of the problem is that people haven’t figured how to communicate the values of public lands the way his economic studies demonstrate. Overall, Rasker says these lands give the region a competitive advantage in the global economy.

“The federal public lands are a gift to the West,” Rasker said. “We have wild country and we have an advanced economy.”

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

Posted in Letters from the West