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Produced & Maintained by Idaho Mountain Express, Box 1013, Ketchum, ID 83340-1013 
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Copyright © 2002 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of June 4 - 10, 2003


What are economic values of wilderness?

Report says protected lands
can boost business

Express Staff Writer

With Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, preparing to propose designation of the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains as a protected wilderness area, many residents of central Idaho are considering how such legislation might affect their local economy.

Some who work in the West’s longtime staple industries of ranching, mining and agriculture have questioned whether additional restrictions on land uses in the approximately 800-square-mile area would stifle key sources of income.

Meanwhile, others have asserted that wilderness areas give back to rural populations less than they take, creating only a limited demand for basic services at the expense of traditional enterprises, cultures, and recreational activities.

However, an in-depth report issued last month by the Arizona-based Sonoran Institute—a nonprofit environmental organization with satellite offices in Montana and Canada—suggests that protected wild landscapes are a key component in strengthening and reviving depressed rural economies.

The report, called "Working Around the White Clouds," states that a healthy environment has been one critical element in the success of Blaine County’s economy, and could be integrated as a catalyst to boost the economies of neighboring Custer and Butte counties.

Ben Alexander, associate director of the Sonoran Institute’s SocioEconomics Program and co-author of the report, last month presented the findings of the report to members of the Boise-based Idaho Conservation League.

Alexander said the rural West has changed dramatically, primarily in a fashion that favors service-related jobs over those that are tied to consumptive uses of public and private lands. "Jobs in rural Idaho are growing mainly in the service sector," he said, noting that many rural Idaho residents acquire a significant amount of their income through the "mailbox"—from outside retirement programs or investments.

Wilderness areas, he said, are not merely playgrounds for rich residents of established resort communities, but with specific types of development can serve as economic stimuli.

Communities that offer pristine public lands along with strong educational institutions, travel infrastructure such as airports, and a willingness to move away from resource-dependent industries can attract new residents that include creative entrepreneurs and retirees, the report notes.

"Studies have shown a strong relationship between economic growth and the amount of land in protected status," the report states. "It is clear, however, that protection of environmental amenities and recreational opportunities is a necessary but not sufficient condition for economic growth … At the very least, local citizens need to realize that competing as a low-cost producer of food, fiber, and minerals is no longer a comparative advantage."

The report specifically studied the economies of Blaine, Butte and Custer counties, the three counties that surround the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains.

All of the three counties face economic challenges that are related directly and indirectly to local uses of public lands, it says.

Blaine County has developed a healthy tourism-based economy that attracted substantial numbers of visitors, many of whom later settled in the area because of its environmental amenities and regional airplane service. The economy subsequently developed other higher-waged "knowledge-based" industries, but because of its high real-estate prices cannot supply a sector of low-wage service workers with local housing, the report states.

Butte County boasts high incomes—primarily from jobs supplied by the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory—but has not been successful in getting those high-wage employees to reside in the county.

In addition, Butte County has failed to diversify its job base and economy, Alexander noted. "They have not positioned themselves as a gateway to the mountains," he said.

Custer County has evolved under a historical dependence on mining and agriculture, and now is suffering from a decline in the mining industry and flat revenues from agriculture, the report states.

Thirty-eight percent of Custer residents’ income comes through the mailbox, from various sources including retirement checks and federal subsidies, he noted. "If anyone tells you it’s a mining-based economy, a ranching-based economy, a timber-based economy, they’re lying," he said.

Alexander concluded that communities near designated protected land areas are more likely to succeed, "in part because you are on a map."

Studies done outside of the Sonoran Institute’s report do support its findings that Idaho communities can succeed as recreational hubs.

A study released last month by the Outdoor Industry Foundation’s Business for Wilderness program found that Idaho ranked first nationwide in resident participation in numerous outdoor activities, including backpacking, climbing, fly fishing and hiking. The study found that 86.8 percent of Idaho residents participated in such activities, part of a nationwide trend that led to the human-powered recreation industry generating approximately $18 billion in 2000.

The study also notes that counties that contain the country’s largest national parks experienced job growth in the last 30 years that was three times faster than the national average. Income growth occurred at a rate that was twice as fast, it says.

A 2001 study by Oregon-based economic consultants Dean Runyon Associates—composed for the Sun Valley-Ketchum Chamber and Visitors Bureau—states that the impacts of tourist spending in 2000 in Blaine County created 5,980 jobs and $120 million in income.

Simpson last month said his central Idaho wilderness proposal will almost certainly include incentives to bolster the economies of communities in Butte and Custer counties.



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