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National Monuments as Engines of Economic Growth

31 Jul 2014  |   Turner Lott

Tags: Public Lands

A monument with a name that initially evokes fear from those unfamiliar with it, Devils Tower is a striking geologic structure that rises 1,267 feet above the surrounding terrain in Crook Country, Wyoming. Those who are captivated by its imposing structure or who are intrigued by its name – which stuck because its original name was lost in translation – soon learn that it served as a sacred site for the Lakota and other Native American tribes. Fortunately, President Theodore Roosevelt was among those intrigued and impressed by Devils Tower. In 1906, he designated Devils Tower as the first national monument under a freshly signed law - the Antiquities Act. After signing this landmark conservation law, Roosevelt set a precedent by establishing national monuments across the country, thereby preserving pristine land and celebrating our nation’s rich history. Now, Americans can visit and enjoy more than 100 national monuments in twenty-seven states. These sites inform visitors about the natural, scientific and cultural history of the region while inspiring respect for cultural history and a connection with the natural environment. The benefits of national monuments are clear. But there is also one tangible benefit of national monuments that is not as widely acknowledged: a catalyst for economic growth.

Headwaters Economics, a nonpartisan research group, recently published a study that highlights the economic importance of national monuments to local communities. The study began in 2011 and focused on seventeen national monuments and the economies adjacent to them. To properly determine whether the sites bolstered the surrounding economy, the analysis relied on proven economic indicators like trends in population, employment and per capita income. Headwaters Economics found that per capita income grew in every surrounding community, which particularly impacts rural towns that have largely witnessed a decline in average wages. The study also compared the economies adjacent to national monuments to economies in similar communities not adjacent to a national monument. In thirteen of the seventeen national monument locations analyzed, the key economic indicators grew at similar or faster rates compared to the benchmarks.

This study is complemented by additional resources that support the notion that national monuments foster a more robust economy. For instance, national monuments encourage outdoor recreation and tourism – in New Mexico, outdoor recreation provides $6.1 billion annually to the state’s economy, supporting 68,400 jobs. National monuments also maintain and increase property values by preserving pristine land and by safeguarding it from natural resource exploitation. So national monuments not only educate and enlighten us about history and environmental concerns, they also serve as engines of strong economy. 

Unfortunately, some Members of Congress have turned a blind eye to our national monuments’ favorable return on investment and have sought to gut the Antiquities Act. This past spring, the House approved H.R. 1459, also known as the “Preventing New Parks” Bill, which would severely limit the president’s ability to protect our treasured resources by designating national monuments. This anti-parks bill would require a gridlocked Congress to authorize national monuments.  That would be a considerable challenge since, apart from a small wilderness area created last spring, Congress has not passed a single land protection bill since 2009 – the longest stretch since World War II.  It would also restrict the number of designations to one per state during a president’s term. And H.R. 1459 is not the House’s sole assault on the Antiquities Act. The House is currently considering H.R. 4988, which would have a similar detrimental effect. These unwarranted attacks on a commonsense, historically bipartisan policy  are another example of the House’s effort to block sound environmental policy – in this instance, policy that has been used by eight Democratic and eight Republican presidents to establish iconic sites such as the Statue of Liberty, the Grand Canyon, and more recently the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks in New Mexico.

The president’s authority to designate national monuments is an important tool to preserve unspoiled land and pristine bodies of water for Americans to enjoy for generations to come. Preserving these natural wonders will help mitigate the detrimental impacts of climate change as well as boost the surrounding economies, as evidenced by Headwaters Economics’ study. However, the future of national monuments depends on the continuance of the Antiquities Act. It is in the best interest of our economy and our environment to uphold it. We must urge our politicians to support the Antiquities Act to allow President Obama and future presidents to further our nation’s conservation efforts and preserve land for generations to come.

(Photograph came from the flickr account m01229)

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