The new value of wilderness
Study links protected lands with prosperity

The peaks of the Weminuche Wilderness lie just beyond the waters of the Vallecito Reservoir, north of Durango. The 487,912-acre wilderness, created in 1975, is Colorado’s largest. A recent study links economic prosperity to nearby wilderness areas and other restricted public lands./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

A direct connection between the nearly half a million protected acres of the Weminuche Wilderness and millions of new dollars has been made. A recently released report dispels the tired assumption that environmental protection prevents economic progress. Instead, the exhaustive study by the Sonoran Institute links the prosperity of communities like Durango with the public lands that surround them.

The Weminuche Wilderness was created northwest of Durango in 1975 and became Colorado's largest wilderness area after it was expanded in 1980 and 1993. At 487,912 acres, the area is loaded with natural wonders, including the Fourteeners Eolus, Sunlight and Windom. As designated wilderness, the Weminuche also enjoys significant protection, with grazing, mining, logging and mechanized vehicles all prohibited. This protection has also created contention. Wilderness areas throughout the country, including the Weminuche, have long been criticized as also prohibiting economic development and being detrimental to the communities on their edges.

With this in mind, the Sonoran Institute, a nonprofit headquartered in Tucson, Ariz., began to explore the link between communities' financial well-being and designated wilderness, national parks and other protected lands. Released last week, the report entitled, “Prosperity in the 21st Century West,” reveals that times have changed.

A study has found that areas surrounded by protected public lands, such as the Weminuche Wilderness, which contains the headwaters of Vallecito Creek, above, prosper more than other areas of the West./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

“You've always heard a lot of grumbling from people about being surrounded by public lands,” said Ray Rasker, director of the Sonoran Institute's socio-economics program. “It turns out that the more public lands you have, the more you grow economically.”

Rasker noted that this new dynamic is a result of a new West where mining, logging and agriculture are no longer the biggest sources of income. Dollars are now tied to a new industry.

“The single largest sources of growth in these areas are retirement and investment income,” Rasker said. “The real hot spots are places like Durango that have an airport and are surrounded by protected public lands.

“It turns out that those areas of the West dependant on mining, logging and oil and gas development are growing the least.”

The numbers tell the tale of Durango's rise, Rasker said. He noted that La Plata County had fewer than 5,000 jobs in 1970 and boasted more than 20,000 in 2000. During the same period, personal income grew by five times and the number of retirees and outside investments quadrupled.

However, there is more to financial success than scenic vistas. Access to urban areas is crucial to the financial success of areas like La Plata County, according to the study. Rasker commented that a direct link to metropolitan areas, either by road or air, is vital to making communities attractive to retirees, telecommuters and investment income.

Celebrating 40 years of wilderness

On Sept. 3, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into being and created the National Wilderness Preservation System. The purpose of the act was to “secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.”

In the last 40 years, designated wilderness has continued to be a place where the imprint of humans has gone substantially unnoticed. By limiting human activity to primitive recreation and basic tools, the wild places have survived with a minimum of disruption to natural processes.

On Thursday, Sept. 9, Durangoans will have an opportunity to celebrate these wild places. The Abbey Theatre will host a world premiere of the film “American Values: American Wilderness” in conjunction with the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Wilderness Act. Narrated by Christopher Reeve, the film documents a wide variety of citizens as they share their deep love of wilderness. A reception will precede the film, and wilderness advocates and educators will be present to answer questions. The reception takes place at 6 p.m. with the film showing at 7 p.m.

The free event is sponsored by San Juan Mountains Association, San Juan Public Lands, San Juan Citizens Alliance and Colorado Environmental Coalition. For more information call 385-1310.

“People are moving in,” Rasker said. “They like living there. And people are making a living in La Plata County. I would guess that without that airport, you'd be in big trouble.”

The link between environment and prosperity has been no secret to Mark Pearson, executive director of San Juan Citizens' Alliance. “I think we all know lots of people who live in Durango because of the wilderness and the recreational amenities right out their back doors,” he said. “I think protecting the wild landscapes we have here can only benefit the economy.”

Bobby Lieb, executive director of both the Durango Chamber of Commerce and La Plata Economic Action Development Partnership, agreed. He noted that real estate has surpassed oil and gas as the top importer of new dollars to La Plata County, and quality of life is driving a great deal of local real estate investment.

“The main attraction for lone eagles and telecommuters is quality of life,” Lieb said. “A lot of people who are relocating are coming here for the recreation. They love fishing or they love hiking and biking.”

People who relocate to Durango and places like it also have a few other needs, according to Rasker. In his look around the West, areas with educated workforces, a steady stream of newcomers and a strong arts presence tended to flourish. On the flip side, Rasker noted that there are thousands of communities surrounded by stunning scenery but lacking these attributes and consequently suffering financially.

In the ever changing face of the West, La Plata County also stands at a crossroads, according to Rasker. While increasing numbers of people are selecting the area for its environmental value, there is also a strong push to develop the region's oil and gas resources. However, Rasker noted that resource development can be permissible.

“I think the resource industry needs to pass two tests,” he said. “First, if it's plausible that a healthy environment drives growth, the industry needs to respect that. The second test is that the boom period makes preparations for the bust that invariably follows. If the resource extraction can pass those two tests, it's not such a bad thing.”

The case of the HD Mountains presents a particularly interesting future test case for the study's findings. As a designated roadless area, the HD Mountains could become designated wilderness in the future. However, 273 new gas wells have also been proposed in the area under grandfathered leases. Rasker said he is skeptical.

“It probably wouldn't pass the two tests in a potential wilderness area,” he concluded. “I think wilderness is probably the biggest attractor of future growth that Durango has.”





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