Is there a War on the West’s National Parks?

Grand Teton National Park
A gloomy day over Jackson Lake in Grand Teton National Park. (Henrik Johansson — click to enlarge)
Guest column by Lisa McGee and Richard Garrett
December 9, 2012

The Casper Star-Tribune recently ran a story describing the threat that the so-called fiscal cliff poses to the national park system and in particular, Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.

The paper interviewed or corresponded with several sources including John Gardner with the National Parks Conservation Association, Scott Balyo of the Cody Country Chamber of Commerce, and Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis.

Gardner and Balyo described the economic benefit — at such a modest cost — that the national park system provides to our nation and the communities near their gates. For example, Gardner pointed out that national park funding “is 1/14th of 1 percent of the nation’s spending. The small investment, though, pays good dividends. For every dollar the government spends on national parks, local economies return $10.” Balyo said that 30 percent of the Cody area’s sales tax revenue comes from tourism, and the local economy will surely suffer if people “aren’t eating out or spending an extra night or shopping.” Gardner’s and Balyo’s analyses corroborate an independent study by Headwaters Economics, which clearly shows that parks are engines driving local economies.

Meanwhile, Representative Lummis is not as certain. In determining whether she will support a deal to avoid fiscal catastrophe via sequestration, she is quoted as saying that she will have to “evaluate it based on many criteria, including the competing demands of federal funding for parks, the military and otherwise vs. the fiscal and moral crisis that is our $16 trillion dollar debt.”

We think it’s fair to be skeptical of Representative Lummis’ position relative to national park system funding. She expressed no such concern for competing demands or a fiscal or moral crisis in July when she wrote a letter urging Congress to reinstate Abandoned Mine Land funding to Wyoming, money that if restored would add an estimated $700 million to the federal budget over the next decade.

Representative Lummis, an unapologetic advocate for mining adjacent to national parks (e.g. uranium mining near the Grand Canyon), has proven to be more inclined to support mineral resource development and the jobs she argues it produces. She has said, frequently, “We will not move this country forward until the war on Western jobs comes to an end.”

The problem with this logic and this slogan in Wyoming is that it willfully ignores a significant, dynamic, and sustainable segment of the state’s economy and the long-term jobs that go with it. If we follow Representative Lummis’ prescription and go “all in” on minerals for our economic sustenance while harming one of the only other real drivers of our state’s economy and revenues — tourism and recreation — we risk the perpetuation of the boom-and-bust cycle that has plagued Wyoming for generations. The biggest assault on western jobs, in the long term, might be to starve national parks of the funding they need and to continue to chip away at wildlife habitat and open space.

According to the Wyoming Office of Tourism, domestic and international visitors to Wyoming spent about $3 billion in the state in 2011. This is equivalent to approximately $8.1 million dollars per day. And this type of economic activity in Wyoming has increased 5.4 percent per year since 1998. The national parks are a big driver of this economic activity.

The Wyoming Office of Tourism also notes in its 2011 economic impact report:

“Local and state tax revenues generated by travel spending were about $120 million in 2011 (excluding property taxes). Without these travel generated tax revenues, each household in Wyoming would have had to pay an additional $540 in taxes to maintain these current state and local tax revenues.”

So, from our vantage point here in Wyoming, Representative Lummis’ approach looks less like fiscal restraint and — to borrow from her slogan — more like a war on the West’s national parks.

Of course mineral development in Wyoming is an unpredictable, boom-and-bust industry. Recently, natural gas prices have fallen off a cliff, and coal production might someday go off the same precipice. Recognizing that low natural gas prices are expected to stay low for the foreseeable future, Governor Matt Mead and the State Legislature are working on ways to impose a 6 percent  reduction in state spending this year with the very real possibility that more cuts will be made in the future.

Wyoming has limited alternatives when it comes to creating and maintaining jobs. Minerals development and government spending, yoked together, is not a fully reliable path to a future of economic security. Our future must include a greener economy, one that leverages the combined values of diversification, efficiency, conservation, and stability. These are values that can make Wyoming attractive to entrepreneurs who want to build businesses in a state that does it right when it comes to clean energy. Savvy business people and their employees will be attracted to Wyoming because we are fundamentally committed to protecting our national parks and public lands as places that make our wildlife, open spaces, water, air, and even economy world class.

One final note. We’d like to see Wyoming’s congressional delegation stand up for funding for the national park system not simply because of the economic benefits these parks bring to Wyoming — but because it’s the right thing to do. Wallace Stegner, the famous American historian and writer, called our national parks “the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic … reflect(ing) us at our best rather than our worst.” They must be nurtured for this and future generations. They must be shielded from financial winds, political whims, and from capricious development. Why? Because, simply said, they are our nation’s soul.

— Lisa McGee is the national parks and forests program director and Richard Garrett is the energy and legislative advocate with the Wyoming Outdoor Council.

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  1. One threat to our national parks is PERC, the Property and Environment Research Center up in Montana. This “think tank” has long advocated that private ownership of land is better than public ownership — despite a long history of private despoilation of land for private profit and public harm.
    These PERCers have actually advocated for corporate ownership and management of public lands, while citing anecdotal rather than data-driven evidence of private owners doing environmental good and public ownership doing environmental harm.
    The Republicans turn to outfits like PERC when they want some intellectual gloss for their corporate-friendly arguments. Of course, one GOP tactic is to starve government, then point out problems and failures as “proof” that government doesn’t work.

  2. Since this article was posted, former Wyo State Treasurer Lummis has announced she is moving back “home” , from the powerful House Appropriations Committee over to the House Natural Resources committee, which she left two years ago. She was disappointed in the appropriations committee’s ideological stance on some budget and finance issues, and feels she can better serve Wyoming by returning to Natural Resources. WHich Subcommittee? Dunno. But Lummis will also serve the 113th Congress on the Budget Oversight committee and the House committee on science and space technology.

    We should be very VERY concerned….

  3. A tip of the hat to Lisa and Richard – and a kick in the seat of the pants to Ms. Lummis. She and the other Wyoming congressional delegates just cannot be convinced by cold, hard facts. If the issue contradicts their ideology on MONEY, they don’t want to have anything to do with it. They may not have children or grandchildren but if they do, they need to sit down and deliberate the consequences of their actions.

  4. Lummis is willing to sacrifice Wyoming’s public lands and wildlife long term, just for short-term economic benefits for a few. That doesn’t sound conservative. That sounds radically extreme — a position that our children and grandchildren will look at in hindsight and ask how Wyoming could be so foolish?