Who knew? Assessing the Economic Benefits of the National Conservation Lands from Our Nation’s Capital

By Egan Cornachione, GeoCorps™ Participant with the National Conservation Lands Division of the Bureau of Land Management, Washington, DC Office.

Alright, I thought. A project with the BLM. This is going to be awesome. I had, throughout college, kept the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in the back of my mind as a fleeting thought of a place where I might someday like to work. To me, it is a place where so many of the most important environmental issues in our country are decided. The diverse collections of BLM lands I’ve seen growing up across the West have left a lasting impression on me with their vastness and pristine naturalness. Like many people who know well the BLM, I recognize the lands as being among some of the most remote places in America.

So when my future supervisor called to tell me I’d gotten a GeoCorps™ assignment, my mind jumped throughout those open spaces. “I can’t wait,” I told her, still dreaming of the field. It wasn’t until later that I grasped my destination would not be Hanksville, Utah or Baker City, Oregon, but rather Washington, DC. Perhaps the position listing should have given this away, or the DC area code from which my supervisor called me. But to me the BLM is the West, and it took me some time to understand that DC has an important place in land management of which I was about to be a part.

Steens Mountains CMPA, near Baker City, OR – one of those places the author hoped he might work (photo courtesy of Bob Wick, BLM)
The author where he actually worked in Washington, DC.

I graduated last May with a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies and Economics from Southwestern University in Texas. My position with the National Conservation Lands Division was asked to generate statistics on the economic effects associated with the specially designated units of the system. For someone with my background and interests, the position couldn’t fit much better.

The National Conservation Lands are a system of 876 federally recognized units, comprising nearly 36 million acres. They include National Monuments like the newly designated Bear’s Ears National Monument; National Conservation Areas (NCAs) and similarly designated units such as Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area; Wilderness Areas such as the extraordinary Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness in New Mexico; Wilderness Study Areas; Wild and Scenic Rivers and Scenic and Historic Trails. Put simply, they’re beautiful lands not dissimilar to those of the National Park Service, but in many cases they are less well-known or crowded. Red Rock Canyon in Las Vegas, Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah, and King Range in California are some of the more recognizable units in the National Conservation Lands.

The author (right) at a celebration of the 20th anniversary of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Grand Staircase was BLM’s first National Monument, a designation which eventually led to the creation of the National Conservation Lands.

Economics is the study of how scarce resources are allocated, making it a crucial discipline to addressing the BLM’s mission of managing our nation’s resources for multiple uses and a sustained yield. Recent executive measures have now required land managers to consider a full range of economic values in National Environmental Policy Act analyses and other planning decisions.

The range of economic values associated with protected lands is vast. For example, though most BLM recreation is free, economists find that people would be willing to pay a considerable amount of money for these experiences. Even people who may never actually visit public lands place some value on their existence. Both these values are important to consider when managing land for recreational uses, and economists have come up with creative ways to place a dollar amount on them. More tangibly, when people choose to visit public lands, they spend money in local communities that likely would not have otherwise been spent in that area. The National Park Service estimates the amount spent annually on visits to their over 400 parks at almost $17 billion (https://www.nps.gov/subjects/socialscience/vse.htm). Additionally, home values, population demographics, and local business opportunities are all impacted by conserved lands. A final concept I know of that does the best job of bridging the gap between environmentalists and economy-defenders is that of ecosystem services. This is the idea that the functioning of natural ecosystems provides benefits to people that can be at least partially captured in monetary terms.

The author attends a presentation by BLM employees for a group of international environmental policy students.

Thus, drawing on the data and previous publications of the BLM, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Forest Service, and National Park Service, among others, I tried to address the broad issue of the economic effects of the National Conservation Lands over the course of a seven month assignment. What I found was both obvious and surprising.

The obvious part is that the impact of a designation depends on a number of factors. Is the area easily accessible? What is the big draw to the unit? Is there a volunteer group or chamber of commerce championing the unit? If the answers are “yes,” “it has something for everyone,” and “of course,” then the impact may be large. Some monuments, like Canyon of the Ancients in Colorado, have seen visitation jump by over 25% the year of their designation. Others, like Basin and Range in Nevada, have few existing amenities and could not immediately support more visitors. Over time, these monuments may be hugely popular if campgrounds, visitor’s centers or roads are constructed to enable visitors to come. All units are not created equal, nor are all gateway communities, which makes it impractical and unfair to draw sweeping generalizations about the economic benefits of a monument designation.

The surprising part, however, is that in general the benefits are both quite large and sustained. Based on the data I collected in conjunction with the BLM’s socioeconomics staff, the economic contributions of recreation visitors to all National Monuments, NCAs and similarly designated units in 2016 was about $610 million in regional economic output. The program supports this output, which amounts to $49 in economic activity per acre, on a diminutive budget of only $2.73 per acre. This equates to $17 in output supported for every $1 of federal funding. Economic contributions represent the direct and indirect effect of money spent directly in local gateway communities on trip-related purchases like gas, food, and lodging. In towns like Kanab, Utah, where spending from Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument supports around 1,000 jobs annually in the region, these expenditures support a huge part of their economy. Across all Monuments and NCAs, visitor spending supported over 6,900 jobs and $225 million in labor income. As an additional benefit, recreation does not typically follow the same boom-and-bust cycle as many other activities. Instead, visitation to monuments and NCAs grows around 5.4% per year on average, over four times greater than the growth rate to all BLM lands of only about 1.3% annually.

Example of a regional economic contributions report generated for one of 48 National Monuments and NCAs: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah.

Another effect of these designations, far greater in magnitude, is captured through ecosystem services. Natural processes like water retention and purification, habitat protection for endangered species, and natural pollination of crops are all examples of important ecosystem services that are valuable but not typically considered as a cost or benefit of a decision involving public lands. An executive memo issued in 2015 requires federal agencies to incorporate the value of these services in decisions where they are relevant. Though they are often difficult to place a dollar value on, they can at least be discussed qualitatively in a decision-making context. A significant part of my project involved identifying ways in which the services provided by National Conservation Lands could be described, quantified, and (in some cases) monetized.

Starting this project with very little specificity on a process or an outcome was both thrilling and upsetting. Among the highlights on the “upsetting” end of the spectrum have been:

  • I got to do something brand new and original(!)… This made many days a challenge to push forward and shape a worthwhile project.
  • Sitting at a desk surrounded by incredible photos and posters of the National Conservation Lands. Lots of people dream of traveling the world, but after working here and seeing hundreds of amazing places I hadn’t even heard of, I now just want to travel the Western United States.
  • A one-hour (or more) commute each way to work to save money. Was it worth it? Still not sure…

And, on the brighter, “thrilling” side…

  • Getting my voice heard by leadership and even the Director of the BLM. As an agency that is perennially understaffed, the BLM gives its program participants the chance to do some very real I was able to prepare multiple briefing papers about the economic benefits of monuments that were given to the BLM Director and other DC leadership.
  • Traveling to Las Vegas and Denver for assignments. In Las Vegas, I learned of the huge importance of partnerships and volunteer groups for National Conservation Lands. From Denver, I travelled to the new Browns Canyon National Monument to learn about what is shaping up to be an even more powerful economic engine for the communities of Salida and Buena Vista.
  • Producing communications tools to share the economic case of National Conservation Lands with BLM and the general public. Look out for a National Conservation Lands economics webpage coming soon!
Team National Conservation Lands with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, DOI Employee Appreciation Day 2016.

Lastly, being in DC ended up in the “thrilling” category. Although DC isn’t as beautiful as BLM lands, I got to take post-work runs past the Capitol Building, have an office picture with Secretary Jewell, and attend Congressional hearings on public lands issues. The National BLM Office is filled with people who know far better than I ever will the rural landscapes of the West that first drew me to the BLM. Most of them have spent a bulk of their careers in the field and, with few exceptions, the DC office is a collection of people that genuinely care about managing public lands for the best outcomes for all people today and in the future. The work here requires most employees’ attention to be dragged into ten different states, units or programs at once, and strong communication is a necessity. While I watch decisions take shape here in DC, I know I can travel to some BLM recreation site out west and understand why the signs, rules and brochures were put there.

My hope is now to work in the field for BLM and learn another side of the agency’s operations, but I am pursuing that desire with a much clearer head and richer set of experiences than ever before. Now after seven months here, I hope that someday if I get a call to come back to DC, it will be for a bigger challenge that I’ll be ready to face. It isn’t as relaxing as the West, but it’s full of good people fighting for the best management of our public lands. I am thankful to have been a part of the National-level group for the past seven months and am leaving a better economist, citizen and person than when I came.

Author in front of a new National Conservation Lands portal sign on a trip to one of the many new sites he learned of during a break from his assignement. After seven months in the National Office, he now knows where signs like this come from and what they mean.