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Valuing Our Western Public Lands Report

Western Public Lands


  Photo: Whitney Coombs

A significant portion of the land area of Utah – 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. Utah’s public lands feature a diverse range of landscapes, including the desert highlands and remote canyonlands of the Colorado Plateau, the snow-capped alpine peaks of the Wasatch Range, and the stark flatlands of the Great Basin desert. In addition, these lands contain remnants of a rich past reaching into the dawn of history.

Utah’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 Utahans and visitors who flock to Utah from around the world. Utah’s public lands also provide habitat for hundreds of wildlife species, from popular game species like mule deer and big horn sheep, to the rare lynx and desert tortoise.

Assessing the Economic Value of Public Lands

Public lands have a substantial impact on the Utah economy. These lands support a booming tourism and outdoor industry. People travel to Utah from around the world to see and explore its natural marvels, such as Arches, Canyonlands, and Zion National Parks, and to camp, hunt and fish on thousands of acres of pristine wildlife habitat. In addition, the natural amenities offered by Utah’s public lands attract new businesses and a skilled workforce, which boost economic growth in communities located near public lands.

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

Outdoor recreation and tourism are a vital part of the Utah economy. The Utah Office of Tourism reports that the state hosted 22 million visitors in 2011. Travelers spend $6.8 billion in Utah per year, which supports 124,000 jobs and $890 million in state and local tax revenues. The Outdoor Industry Association has found that active outdoor recreation contributes $5.8 billion annually to Utah’s economy, supports 65,000 jobs across the state, generates nearly$300 million in annual state tax revenue and produces nearly $4 billion annually in retail sales and services across Utah - accounting for almost 5 percent of gross state product.

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

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that each year over 1 million people participate in wildlife-related recreation in New Mexico. The Montana economy benefits from $1.9 billion in annual spending on wildlife-related recreation.

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

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

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


Utahans Value Public Lands

Public opinion polls prove that people and businesses come to Utah and choose to stay because of the quality of life tied to public lands. Utah residents enjoy spending time outside on public lands. A 2013 bipartisan poll conducted by the Colorado College State of the Rockies Project showed that a huge majority of Utah voters (91%) engage in at least one outdoor recreation activity on a regular basis. Sixty-six percent (66%) hike and camp regularly. Forty-four percent of Utah voters are hunters or anglers. The vast majority (81%) of Utah voters plan to visit a national park this year. These Utahans recognize the economic and intrinsic value of public lands and want to see these lands protected for future generations.

Utah Voters Recognize That Public Lands Support the Economy

Utah voters clearly value the impact public lands have on their economy – virtually all (96%) say they are an essential part of the state’s economy and 77% agree that the state's public lands help attract high quality employers and good jobs. Seventy-four percent of Utahans believe public lands in the state support the economy, provide recreation opportunities and enhance quality of life, rather than being a fiscal burden and preventing creation of jobs in traditional industries.

Utah Voters Support Protections for Land, Water, Air and Wildlife

A majority (62%) of Utah voters say environmentally sensitive places on public lands should be permanently protected from oil and gas drilling.

Utah Voters Oppose Proposals to Sell Off Public Lands

A majority of Utah voters oppose selling some federal public lands as a way to reduce the nation’s budget deficit (57% oppose/37% support).

Elected Officials Are Out of Touch

Far too many of Utah’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, Utah 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

Utah’s "Transfer of Public Lands Act and Related Study,” signed into law in March 2012, established a deadline of December 31, 2014, for the federal government to turn over Utah’s nearly 20 million acres of public lands to the state, or it will sue.

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

  • 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. Indeed, survey data indicates that while most Utah voters take a positive view of a candidate who supports protecting public lands and espouses pro-conservation positions, a majority (51%) say they are not sure what position their member of Congress has taken on protecting land, air and water.

Get Involved

It’s up to individual citizens to hold elected officials and decision makers accountable to the values that define Utah’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 Utah Resources page for information about visiting Utah’s public lands.

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

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 Utah'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 Utah Jobs and Higher Incomes http://headwaterseconomics.org/land/west-is-best-value-of-public-lands-ut/

Outdoor Industry Association, The Outdoor Recreation Economy, Utah http://www.outdoorindustry.org/images/ore_reports/UT-utah-outdoorrecreationeconomy-oia.pdf

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation – State Overview, Preliminary Estimates http://digitalmedia.fws.gov/cdm/ref/collection/document/id/858

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

Utah Office of Tourism http://travel.utah.gov/research_and_planning/