SALT LAKE CITY — Public lands such as wilderness and national parks fuel the economy and are a job creator in the West, luring the best companies and most talented employees to enjoy the country's playgrounds.
That assertion is the impetus behind a letter sent Wednesday to President Barack Obama and signed by more than 100 economists and academics in related fields, asking him to protect existing public lands.
The letter also urges him to create new protected areas, although in a subsequent teleconference hosted by some of the signatories they said that option would be more viable down the road.
"The question of adding more federal lands would be a challenge today, but in five years it may not be," said Walt Hecox, with the Colorado College State of the Rockies Project.
Of more critical concern is the declining health of existing national parks and monuments that are suffering from neglected infrastructure that threatens the visitor experience, said Ray Rasker, the letter's organizer and executive director of Headwaters Economics.
"Much of the infrastructure is crumbling," Rasker said. "It really requires an investment and is something we need to protect."
Signatory Gundars Rudzitis, a geography professor at the University of Idaho at Moscow, said Obama should craft a jobs package that puts people to work improving public lands and related infrastructure.
"I think it would be a bold initiative that I think people could rally around," he said. "Certainly we need to put people back to work."
Rasker stressed the letter is a call for top political leaders to acknowledge the critical link between public lands and their economic contributions.
"At the very least we should stop the rhetoric that protected lands are bad for the economy when academics points out the opposite is true. ...The federal protected lands are one of the West's most competitive advantages. They attract companies and workers, and they create jobs."
The letter is likely to have a cool reception among Utah's conservative politicians who have rallied strongly against any creation of new national monuments in the state and say too much of it is already controlled by the federal government.
Several congressional measures, including one sponsored by Utah GOP Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz, aim to exempt states from the presidential power to create national monuments.
Rasker said the letter is not a request for Obama to make use of that power, but to work to preserve what is already in place to help bolster the economy.
He pointed to Moab, Utah, in the heart of red rock country as an example of a city that weathered the recession well. Much of that, he added, is due to its diverse economy built around tried-and-true destinations like Arches and Canyonlands national parks, as well as companies that locate there for its scenic attractions.
"Moab did not feel the recession like much of the rest of the country," he said. "What we are saying is that the role of public lands goes far beyond attracting tourists," he said during the teleconference based in Bozeman, Mont. "It really has become a magnet that attracts business."
Hecox said the letter does not say that federal lands can't be multi-use, but they have to be protected in a way that sustains them. The group cited a public opinion survey conducted earlier this year on behalf of The State of the Rockies Project at Colorado College that polled voters in five Rocky Mountain states, including Utah.
The poll, they said, found that 77 percent of respondents agreed with the statement: “We can protect land and water and have a strong economy with good jobs at the same time, without having to choose one over the other.”
One of the signatories to the letter is Utah State University's Arthur Caplan, a professor of applied economics. He could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
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