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Valuing Our Western Public Lands Report

Western Public Lands


  Flickr: Dawn Ellner

A significant portion of the land area of Idaho – over 60% – is public land. These public lands include national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, monuments, wilderness areas and lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Idaho’s public lands feature a diverse range of landscapes, including vast forests, miles of sagebrush grasslands, and numberless lakes, hot springs, mountains, and rivers.Idaho also has more designated roadless wilderness than any other state in the conterminous U.S.

Idaho’s public lands support a wide variety of activities, from recreational pursuits such as camping, hunting, fishing, and hiking to natural resource development. They also provide clean air, clean water and picturesque scenery, resources enjoyed by all Idahoans and by visitors who flock to Idaho from around the world. Idaho’s public lands also provide extensive habitat for wildlife of all types: moose, elk, deer, bear, mountain lions, coyotes, raptors, and countless small birds and mammals.

Assessing the Economic Value of Public Lands

Public lands have a substantial impact on the Idaho economy. These lands support a booming tourism and outdoor industry. People travel to Idaho from around the world to see and explore its natural marvels, such as Hells Canyon and Sawtooth National Recreation Areas, and world-class fishing and boating rivers, the Snake and the Salmon. In addition, the natural amenities offered by Idaho’s public lands attract new businesses and a skilled workforce, which boost economic growth in communities located near public lands.

Idaho’s Public Lands Support a Booming Outdoor Recreation and Tourism Industry

Outdoor recreation and tourism are a vital part of the Idaho economy. The Idaho Division of Tourism reports that the state’s travel and tourism industry provides $1.8 billion in annual gross sales and supports 27,000 jobs and $620 million in annual wages. The Outdoor Industry Association has found that active outdoor recreation supports 37,000 jobs across Idaho, generates $154 million in annual state tax revenue and produces $2.2 billion annually in retail sales and services across Idaho - accounting for nearly 5 percent of gross state product.

Idaho’s Public Lands Provide Opportunities to Hunt, Fish and Watch Wildlife

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that each year more than 838,000 people participate in hunting, fishing and wildlife watching in Idaho - 447,000 fish, 246,000 hunt and 558,000 participate in wildlife-watching activities. The Idaho economy benefits from $1.6 billion in annual spending on wildlife-related recreation.

Idaho’s Public Lands Influence the Economic Structure of Nearby Communities

Like other western states with a large percentage of public lands, Idaho is outpacing the nation in economic growth.  The competitive advantage offered by its public lands attracts talent, investment, and businesses to Idaho, contributing to its high rate of employment and income growth.

Idaho vs. Non-Western U.S., Percent Change, 2000-2011. Source: Headwaters Economics. West Is Best: Protected Lands Promote Idaho Jobs and Higher Incomes. November 2012. http://headwaterseconomics.org/land/west-is-best-value-of-public-lands-id/


Idahoans Value Public Lands

Several recent studies and surveys show overwhelming public support for national parks and monuments, refuges and open range, sagebrush steppe, and rugged canyon landscapes encompassed by public lands. Polls of voters in the Rocky Mountain West show that people recognize the benefits of public lands – from the money and jobs generated by tourism, hunting, fishing, and other recreation to the high quality of life that comes with living in scenic areas with clean air and easy access to vacation spots. Businesses surveyed recognize that proximity to open spaces, wildlife, and public parks gives them an advantage in attracting highly qualified employees looking for a desirable place to live and work. Westerners also strongly identify with that most American of ideas – that public lands provide each of us a place where we are free to hike, cast a line, watch eagles soar, or track an elk through snowy woods.

Elected Officials Are Out of Touch

Far too many of Idaho’s public lands are under attack by Congress and the state legislature. For example, throughout the 112th and 113th Congresses, elected lawmakers introduced dozens of bills that sought to roll back protections for public lands. In addition, Idaho is one of seven western states that have passed, introduced, or explored legisla­tion in the past year demanding that the federal government turn over millions of acres of federal public lands to the state. If the sponsors of these proposals succeed in their aims, these lands will be used in whatever way the new owner – state or private – wants to use them. This generally means maximizing private profits through resource extraction rather than managing for the long-term benefit and use of the public. To learn more about why these proposals are problematic, read the full report, Valuing Our Western Public Lands: Safeguarding Our Economy and Way of Life.

Attempts to Transfer Public Land Out of Public Ownership

In March 2013, the Idaho Senatepassed House Concurrent Resolution 22, which asks Congress to transfer title for federally owned lands within Idaho’s borders to the state government. The resolution, which would apply to about 16 million acres of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Managementand the Forest Service, has no legal effect.

Several bills proposed in the U.S. Congress would force the sale of public lands in Idaho:

  • American Land Act (H.R. 1017, 113th Congress), by Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX). This bill would force the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service to sell 8 percent of their respective federal land to the highest bidder, annually until 2017. This year alone, the two agencies would be forced to sell off nearly 36 million acres of forest and public land to corporate interests.
  • Action Plan for Public Lands and Education Acta.k.a. “Land Division Act” (H.R. 2852, 112th Congress), by Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT). This bill would force the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service to give away, free of charge, 5 percent of their lands to each Western state. This would leave 30 million acres in the West vulnerable to more resource extraction and development.
  • Disposal of Federal Lands Act (H.R. 1126, 112th Congress), by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT). This bill would force the Bureau of Land Management in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming to sell off “excess” public lands to the highest bidder. This bill was also incorporated into the House budget bill in the 113th Congress.

Attempts to Weaken Protection of Public Lands

For decades, cornerstone conservation laws like the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) have protected public lands and natural resources. Recently, many members of Congress have been working to dismantle these vital protections and open public lands to increased resource exploitation and development. For example, in the first session of the 112th Congress, House Republicans voted 191 times to weaken environmental protections, halt wilderness designations, and remove protections for wildlife. For a list of some of the legislation that poses significant risks to our public lands, read the full report, Valuing Our Western Public Lands: Safeguarding Our Economy and Way of Life.

Why the Disconnect?

Why is there an ideological gap between the actions of our elected officials and the values of their constituents? Clearly the power and influence of industry lobbying and campaign contributions plays a role. But the Colorado College State of the Rockies poll offers an additional explanation: the majority of voters in western states are not aware of their representatives’ view on public lands issues.

Get Involved

It’s up to individual citizens to hold elected officials and decision makers accountable to the values that define Idaho’s public lands heritage. The most important thing you can do is let decision makers know that you are paying attention. To have your voice heard and demonstrate your commitment to preserving our public lands:

1.     Inspire your children and grandchildren to become the next generation of conservation leaders by taking them outside to hike, fish, hunt, and watch wildlife.Visit OPL’s Idaho Resources page for information about visiting Idaho’s public lands.

2.     Join local, regional, and national groups like the National Wildlife Federation that fight for your priorities.Visit OPL’s Idaho Resources page for a list of wildlife and conservation groups that work in Idaho.

3.     Take advantage of opportunities for citizen involvement in decisions affecting our public lands: public meetings and hearings with decision makers, public comments periods, town hall meetings, and other forms of citizen engagement.

4.     Reach out directly to your elected officials through letters, phone calls, or social media platforms. Tell them you value our public lands. Your representatives are duty-bound to listen. Visit the links below to find and contact your elected officials.

Contact Elected Officials About Public Lands Issues:

Click here for Resources about Idaho's Public Lands and Wildlife


Center for American Progress, Goad, J. and Kenworthy, T., State Efforts to ‘Reclaim’ Our Public Lands http://www.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/GoadLandsReclaimBrief-1.pdf

Colorado College State of the Rockies Project, Conservation in the West Poll http://www.coloradocollege.edu/other/stateoftherockies/conservationinthewest/

Headwaters Economics, West Is Best: Protected Lands Promote Idaho Jobs and Higher Incomes http://headwaterseconomics.org/land/west-is-best-value-of-public-lands-id/

Outdoor Industry Association, The Outdoor Recreation Economy – Idaho http://www.outdoorindustry.org/images/ore_reports/ID-idaho-outdoorrecreationeconomy-oia.pdf

State of Idaho Department of Commerce, Idaho Tourism and Travel Research http://commerce.idaho.gov/tourism-grants-and-resources/Research/

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation – Idaho http://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/fhw11-id.pdf

U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Energy and Commerce Minority Staff, The Anti-Environment Record of the U.S. House of Representatives 112th Congress, 1stSession http://democrats.energycommerce.house.gov/sites/default/files/image_uploads/_Anti-Environment%20Report%20Final.pdf