Study links protected lands with
|The peaks of the Weminuche Wilderness
lie just beyond the waters of the Vallecito Reservoir,
Durango. The 487,912-acre wilderness, created in
1975, is Colorado’s largest. A recent study
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
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
“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
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.”