Media reports about the impact of the federal government shutdown have interestingly focused on one public impact more than any other – the loss of access to public lands. Barricaded monuments, chained gates at national parks, and refuges closed to hunting became the most visual – and often most emotional – representation of the shutdown.
Why? Public lands are clearly special to the American people. In a survey of U.S. voters last year conducted on behalf of The Nature Conservancy, seven in 10 Americans said they would prefer to vacation at a “national park or other public lands like the Grand Canyon or Great Smoky Mountains” rather than a major U.S. city.
But public lands are more than just a place to hike or a historic site to visit. They represent our way of life, our connection to our natural heritage, and are the lifeblood of many state and local economies.
As Rep. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) said in urging a solution to the parks shutdown: “Our national parks not only represent an important part of our economy, but also an important part of our national heritage.”
And voters agree. Seven in 10 nationally say that their “state and national parks, forests, monuments, and wildlife areas are an essential part of (their) state’s economy.”
But there is another economic benefit of our public lands that has not been spotlighted in the shutdown: lifestyle amenities, which have increasingly become a competitive advantage for high-tech and service-industry businesses thriving in rural communities across the West.
Just last month a survey of 200 business owners and managers throughout Montana conducted by Public Opinion Strategies found that the benefit of public lands registered across industries, across types of communities, and across the state:
- 89 percent of Montana business owners surveyed said national parks, forests and wildlife areas are an essential part of Montana’s economy; and
- 70 percent of business owners said “the Montana outdoor lifestyle” was a factor in deciding to locate or grow their business in Montana. The second-highest factor for businesses was the “presence of public lands like national forests, national parks and wildlife refuges, and access to rivers and trails.”
These results are not unique to Montana. The 2013 Conservation in the West survey of 2,400 Westerners, conducted by the bipartisan research team of Public Opinion Strategies and Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates, showed strong (74 percent) agreement that public lands help attract high-quality employers and jobs to their state.
Americans agree that you can’t put a price on taking your grandchildren fishing, walking the hallowed grounds at Gettysburg, biking a mountain trail, or floating a local river. It is part of the fabric that drives people to invest in their communities, to build businesses, and to embrace the outdoor heritage of the places they live and work.
If nothing else, the shutdown has reminded us that our public lands are important to our way of life, as well as our bottom line. And Americans want our public policies to reflect that.
Marne Hayes is director of Business for Montana’s Outdoors. Lori Weigel is a partner with Public Opinion Strategies.
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