Economic Figures Build Support for Federal Conservation Funding

Wildlife Management Institute
Wildlife Management Institute

Gardners, PA –-( With Congress looking to reduce the federal budget deficit and the “Super Committee’s” failure to reach a compromise on future funding levels triggering more than $1 trillion in cuts to domestic spending, several keystone conservation programs are facing significant funding reductions, according to the Wildlife Management Institute.

As a result, conservation organizations are seeking ways to build support and justify these programs focusing on how conservation and recreation impact local economies.

A recent report quantifies the importance of providing outdoor recreational opportunities, focusing on job creation and revenues in what are typically small, rural towns near public lands. Conducted by Southwick Associates for the America’s Voice for Conservation, Recreation and Preservation (AVCRP) coalition and commissioned by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, it is the first report to capture numerous existing studies on the economic impacts of conservation and outdoor recreation in one overview.

“Natural resource conservation and historic preservation programs provide hundreds of thousands of jobs and strong returns on public investments that primarily help rural communities and cannot be exported abroad,” said John L. Nau III, chairman emeritus of the Civil War Trust and co-chair of the AVCRP. “This country needs jobs that leverage private investment and conserve our precious natural resources and historic spaces.”

The argument is gaining traction as the Western Governors Association has launched its “Get Out West” marketing campaign in an effort to capitalize on the great outdoor recreation resources in the region. In addition, more than 100 economists recently wrote the White House urging continued investment in public lands infrastructure to create jobs and support businesses.

Outdoor Recreation Impacts on the Economy
While the economy has yet to recover fully, the outdoor industry has been largely recession proof. The Outdoor Industry Association (OIA)—the trade organization for “human-powered” outdoor recreation (hiking, biking, paddling, etc.)—provides monthly reports on the state of the industry, and the one for October shows a 7-percent increase. In general, the outdoor industry has been outperforming the broader retail market with year-to-date outdoor product sales up 6.3 percent to $7.7 billion for the nine-month fiscal retail period running February through October. Overall, outdoor recreation sales (gear and trips combined) of $289 billion per year are greater than annual returns from pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing ($162 billion), legal services ($253 billion), and power generation and supply ($283 billion).

But the impacts go much farther than the retail sales numbers provided by OIA. The industry estimates that the total economic activity from outdoor recreation is $730 billion a year. The Southwick report’s compilation of economic data shows that outdoors and historic preservation generate a conservative estimate of more than $1 trillion in total economic activity, support 9.4 million jobs each year and provide $107 billion in federal, state and local tax revenues. As an example, 2010 activities associated with U.S. Department of the Interior lands provided more than 2.2 million jobs for Americans, which generated $377 billion in economic activity. This includes such activities as construction and maintenance; natural resource management; water, timber and forage use of public lands; and land acquisition.

“As a former Secretary of the Interior, governor, senator and mayor, I have witnessed firsthand how historic preservation, conservation and outdoor recreation result in tremendous benefits to our nation’s economy,” said Dirk Kempthorne. “This study is a valuable tool for reaffirming and quantifying those benefits.”

Beyond the topline numbers, the report evaluates the impact of public lands on nearby communities. Visitation of public lands provides specific returns to communities. In 2009, visitors to national parks spent $12.56 billion in “gateway” areas adjacent to the parks and more than 56 percent of the total spending was by visitors who stayed outside the parks. Nationally, this visitor activity accounted for 247,000 jobs, $9.66 billion in labor income and $16.46 billion in value added. The local impact across all parks amounted to direct and secondary effects of 149,500 jobs, $4.56 billion in labor income and $7.74 billion in value added. In addition, the combined spending effect of hunting, fishing and wildlife watching associated with National Forest System lands totaled $9.5 billion in annual retail sales. They supported 189,400 jobs and provided $1.01 billion in annual federal tax revenues. For national wildlife refuges, there were 36.7 million visitors in 2004, generating $1.64 billion of economic activity in regional economies.

Economic Benefit of Natural Areas
While spending on physical goods and services and trip-related costs associated with public lands are impressive, many of those expenses do not consider the economic returns from the protection of open spaces and natural habitat. The value of ecosystem services provided by natural habitat in the 48 contiguous United States amount to about $1.6 trillion annually, which is equivalent to more than 10 percent of the United States’ gross domestic product (GDP). As a specific case in point, the total value of ecosystem services provided by the acreage of natural habitats in national wildlife refuges totaled $32.3 billion per year, or $2,900 per acre per year. However the opposite impact occurs with loss of habitat. The loss of about 9.9 million acres of wetlands in the U.S. since the 1950s has resulted in an economic loss of more than $81 billion in all wetlands-related ecosystem services, including flood control and water quality.

Another way to assess the importance of open spaces and protected land is to evaluate the property values near these conserved areas. There has been no nationwide assessment, but individual analyses of specific public land units provide a snapshot of how these areas have impacted private land values. One study included in the Southwick report looked at 20 years of research into property values near different categories of parks, from urban to specialized recreational parks, and included natural parks. Overall, the study found a 20-percent value increase of properties next to a passive park; it suggested that these numbers can be used more widely to estimate the economic contributions of parks.

Increased Calls for Action
The strong economic return on investment for public lands is a message that conservation organizations are hoping is resonating in Congress and with the White House. The coalition, America’s Voice for Conservation, Recreation and Preservation has grown to more than a thousand organizations, ranging from traditionally conservative sportsmen’s organizations to some of the more “green” environmental organizations.

In addition, a recent letter by economists and academics was sent to the White House urging continued investment in conservation of public lands. “The rivers, lakes, canyons and mountains found on public lands serve as a unique and compelling backdrop that has helped to transform the western economy from a dependence on resource extractive industries to growth from in-migration, tourism, and modern economy sectors such as finance, engineering, software development, insurance and health care,” the letter authors wrote. “Today, one of the competitive strengths of the West is the unique combination of wide-open spaces, scenic vistas and recreational opportunities alongside vibrant, growing communities that are connected to larger markets via the Internet, highways and commercial air service.”

Even governors in the West are recognizing the link. At their winter meeting early this month, the Western Governor’s Association (WGA) officially launched its marketing campaign to urge tourists to “Get Out West.” The first step of the effort will be the development of a comprehensive report documenting the recreation industry’s contribution to jobs and the economy of western states and the nation. The OIA will be partnering with motorized recreation groups representing an industry with more limited research on the economic impacts from public lands.

“In the past, the motorized and non-motorized groups have published their own reports and analyses using different methodologies,” said Washington Governor Chris Gregoire, chair of the WGA. “With this joint effort, policy makers and the public will get a more complete picture of the positive impacts these industries have on the western economy.”

“The American West is an iconic place for outdoor recreation and draws enthusiasts locally and from around the world,” said Frank Hugelmeyer, President and CEO of the Outdoor Industry Association. “Our choice of activities may differ, but our interest in an accessible, well-managed, well-funded public lands infrastructure brings us together. It is critical that the outdoor recreation community works together to provide a comprehensive snapshot that reveals the true economic impact of our collective industries.”

While there is greater cohesiveness in the conservation community on the issues of funding and the value natural resource conservation efforts to the national economy, how the argument will resonate in Congress remains unclear. There is support building for permanent funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the federal funding source for state and local parks and recreation as well as federal land acquisition. In addition, agriculture conservation programs and wetland management programs also have strong supporters in Congress.

But, as the overall budget “pie” shrinks, many conservation programs appear to be at risk in every appropriations cycle. (jas)

Wildlife Management Institute: Founded in 1911, WMI is a private, nonprofit, scientific and educational organization, dedicated to the conservation, enhancement and professional management of North America’s wildlife and other natural resources. Visit: