A group of men and women walking on a dirt trial near tall cacti and desert brush.
A group on the Anza Trail that cuts through BLM’s Sonoran Desert National 
Monument in Arizona.  (Sonoran Institute/Ian Wilson)

The Value of BLM’s Wild Side:  Western Communities Benefit from Open Landscapes

By Luther Propst

“There’s just value in beauty.”
          —Chris Long, President of the Friends of the San Pedro in southern Arizona

Rocky canyons and wild rivers; open plains with herds of wild horses; working landscapes of grazing livestock, mining, and oil and gas development; historic and cultural trails; wilderness areas of beauty and solitude—the BLM oversees the most iconic landscapes in the West.  Covering about 245 million acres of the United States, the vast majority in the West and in Alaska, BLM lands and the activities that take place on them contribute significantly to the economies of local communities as well as to the country as a whole.

Over the last 20 years, the Sonoran Institute has worked with the BLM to inform communities and engage diverse people in discussions about choices and tradeoffs regarding the uses and values of BLM lands and the various benefits they confer on nearby communities.  We’ve done studies to examine the economic implications of protecting BLM lands.  This is challenging work, in part because the economic benefits of resource development and extraction are usually centralized and easy to observe, while the environmental and other costs of resource extraction are diffuse and more challenging to measure. 

While the economics of these lands are complex, it is clear that open landscapes managed by the BLM are valuable on many levels.  Beyond the easily quantifiable value of public lands, such as the revenue provided by oil and gas production, many economic benefits are more subtly expressed.

For example, Las Cienegas National Conservation Area (NCA) and surrounding lands southeast of Tucson, Arizona, are the exclusive source for drinking water for thousands of residents in eastern Pima County.  This water is clearly a huge economic asset for the region, yet placing a specific value on it would challenge most economists.  Similarly, riparian areas on BLM lands function as natural, low-cost, flood control systems.  When these streamside landscapes are altered by development, use, or resource extraction, alternate sources of water and flood protection are needed, and they are costly. 

An estimated 22 million people in the West reside within 25 minutes of lands managed by the BLM.  This proximity provides yet more economic value derived from agency lands.  A study by two University of Arizona economics professors found that two popular birding sites in southern Arizona have significant economic value.  The San Pedro Riparian NCA and Ramsey Canyon, a nearby preserve managed by The Nature Conservancy, add as much as $16.9 million to the area each year in tourist spending and generate up to 590 jobs spread throughout dozens of local businesses.

It is significantly more straightforward to measure the economic impact of visitors to public lands than to quantify the value of critically important factors such as clean air and clean water.  As a result, too much emphasis is placed on those studies and too little on the much more significant economic benefits of the public lands that are simply harder to quantify, yet no less valuable.

Another area of study is the extent to which public lands attract bright, creative people and their capital, jobs, and innovation.  Open spaces such as those administered by the BLM may well exert a substantial economic impact from their ability to attract well-educated and highly paid workers—not just in resource development, but in aerospace, health care, higher education, finance and other fields.  These workers are attracted to cities that maintain a connection to wild spaces while cultivating a mature and sophisticated economy, such as Tucson and Sierra Vista, Arizona; Grand Junction, Colorado; and Las Vegas, Nevada. 

A good example is Sonoran Desert National Monument, a 487,000-acre BLM natural area located just beyond the sprawling golf course developments of the Phoenix metropolitan area.  Local economic development officials market and support this and other conservation areas, knowing that these conserved lands help attract highly skilled workers who participate in hiking, mountain biking, and other outdoor recreational activities at a higher rate than the general population. 

While the most significant impacts of conserved public lands are indeed difficult to quantify, it is important that we do so in order to gain a better understanding of the actual economic and community benefits, and costs, of decisions regarding the conservation and development of public lands. 

Luther Propst founded and directs the Sonoran Institute, which works to conserve public lands, promote “smart growth,” better manage water, and reform local and state energy and climate change policies.