Denver’s recent Presidential debate offered discussion on an array of issues intended to answer the question of who is best suited to serve as the leader of our nation. For many of us who live in the West, one topic was mysteriously absent: the candidates’ positions on conservation and public lands. This omission did not go unnoticed.
Neither President Obama nor Governor Romney (nor the moderator) recognized the sportsmen, farmers and ranchers, or environmentalists that have looked after America’s great outdoors for generations. And most germane, they appear to have overlooked the connection between the conservation of our outdoors resources and the economy and jobs.
Throughout the West, jobs and the economy are synonymous with outdoor recreation and conservation. And it’s not just those who spend their weekends in the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains that benefit; it is also a boon for retail trade, manufacturing, and tourism, to name a few. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, outdoor recreation supports 6.1 million jobs while generating $646 billion in spending, $39.9 billion in federal tax revenue, and $39.7 billion in state/local tax revenue, with a total economic impact of $1.06 trillion annually. As we continue to fight our way out of the recession, ignoring those kinds of economic numbers doesn’t make sense for either candidate running for President.
The foundation of this outdoor economy is policies regulating conservation stewardship. So why is it that we don’t hear greater discussion about conservation, public lands, and their connection to a huge economic driver?
The simple answer is that conservation, like most issues in Washington these days, has been caught in the crosshairs of political divisiveness. As Congress quarrels aimlessly over the merits of domestic energy production vs. environmental protection, clean water vs. agriculture development, defense of wildlife habitat vs. urban expansion, and so on, conservation policies have become mere partisan wedge issues.
It’s now long ago that conservation efforts bridged political divides and served as a symbol of public unity and pragmatism to pressing problems. During those times we saw remarkable conservation achievements like the establishment of Yellowstone National Park, the adoption of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, and the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act that paved the road to recovery from the dust bowl. A generation later, Democrats and Republicans, sportsmen and environmentalists, worked together to pass bedrock environmental laws like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.
Today conservation is in the crosshairs of a Congress swept up in the fever of deficit reduction, despite accounting for only 1.25 percent of the federal budget. Earlier this year the House passed unprecedented budget cuts to conservation, recreation, and historic preservation programs. Shortly after, we witnessed the revival of the Sagebrush Rebellion resulting in legislation demanding the outright sale of public lands in Utah. In Bristol Bay, Alaska, a proposal to develop what would be North America’s largest open pit mine would all but end the world’s largest run of sockeye salmon and a $500 million annual commercial and sport fishing industry.
It is more important than ever that we elect candidates willing to set aside partisan politics and heed the wisdom of predecessors like Theodore Roosevelt, who understood the economic value of conservation. On occasion that will mean additional federal spending, but we now know that every dollar invested in conservation yields a four-dollar return.
A recent survey conducted by Colorado College indicates that most Westerners agree conservation of our natural resources should remain a priority. Seventy-eight percent of those surveyed believe we can protect our land and water while maintaining a strong economy at the same time. Nine out of ten respondents in Colorado said our national parks, forests, monuments, and wildlife areas are an essential part of Colorado’s economy. Further, eighty-six percent support continued funding to protect and maintain our state’s land, water, and wildlife.
As we enter the eleventh-hour of the 2012 election, there is still uncertainty about how the conservation concerns of the 21st century will be addressed, and about what kind of legacy we will leave for future generations.
One thing is certain. If we fail to address today’s conservation challenges and those that lay ahead, we will face the loss of a uniquely American set of values and traditions, but also a critical driver in the American economy. The conversation is worth having and my vote will go to the guy who speaks up.