Public Lands and Per Capita Income

When rural counties in the West have protected public lands like national parks and wild and scenic rivers, their per capita income tends to be higher. A study looks at economics and protected public lands and offers some possible explanations.

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Rural counties with national parks, wildlife refuges and other protected public lands may have an economic edge over other rural counties. 

A study by Headwaters Economics of Bozeman, Montana, shows that rural counties in the Western United States tend to have higher per capita incomes when they have protected public land within their borders. The reason may be that counties with natural amenities like national monuments and wild and scenic rivers are more likely to attract talented workers, who have above-average earning power.

The study found that, on average, for every 10,000 acres of public land that were located in non-metro counties in the West, the county’s per capita income was $436 higher. The rate was not fixed, but went up or down based on other factors that were included in the research.

The study looked at the West’s 286 non-metro counties. Researchers measured the acreage of protected public lands (such as national parks, recreation areas, wild and scenic rivers, wildlife refuges and others). And they looked at 10 economic indicators such as per capita income, average earnings per job, migration, college education levels and others. 

From this data, the study generated an interactive map of the West, showing the per capita income for each non-metro in the West that can be explained by protected public lands.

Here’s how the report summarized its findings:

One of the reasons for this positive relationship [between the existence of protected public lands and higher per capita income] may be that in today’s economy, a premium is placed on the ability of communities to attract talented workers, and the environmental and recreational amenities provided by national parks and other protected lands serve to attract and retain talented people who earn above average wages, and have above average wealth, such as investment income. This explanation would be consistent with the non-metro West’s transition into a service-based economy, which constitutes 61 percent of all employment. It is also consistent with the rapid growth of non-labor income in the non-metro West, including retirement and investment income, which has comprised 65 percent of net total personal income growth in the last decade. 

But protected public lands also may come with some down sides, the researchers write:

… Some of the literature on the role of protected public lands has pointed to negative effects resulting from amenity migration. Some of the consequences of people moving to the countryside are: urban sprawl; encroachment of residential areas onto fire-prone lands, also known as the wildland-urban interface; a disruption of wildlife migration patterns and habitat; and loss of biodiversity. In other words, economic growth itself is not without its challenges.

Under the right circumstances, including an awareness and willingness to manage economic growth and residential development, protected public lands such as wilderness and national parks can be a significant economic boost to the non-metropolitan counties of the West.

Headwaters Economics is an independent, nonprofit research organization that “seeks to improve community development and land management decisions in the West.”

 

 

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