Federal Lands in the West: Liability or Asset?

  • From the early 1970s to the 2010s, western rural counties with the highest share of federal lands on average had faster population, employment, and personal income growth than their peers with the lowest share of federal lands. Per capita incomes grew somewhat faster.
  • Some rural counties are struggling and are searching for ways to benefit from nearby federal lands. While every county has unique circumstances, the changing economy of the West has impacted all counties and altered the economic role of nearby public lands.
  • Counties that performed the best are benefitting from nearby public lands in multiple ways, such as supporting commodity sectors like natural gas and timber, increasing tourist and recreation spending, and sustaining steady growth by attracting entrepreneurs and retirees.
federal lands economic performance 2015

*Click to enlarge. All income figures adjusted for inflation.

This update of research from last year finds that from the early 1970s to the early 2010s, population, employment, and personal income on average all grew significantly faster—two times faster or more—in western rural counties with the highest share of federal lands compared to counties with the lowest share of federal lands. Per capita income growth was slightly higher in counties with more federal land.

While there are exceptions to these findings–some places with little federal land are performing well and some places with significant federal land are struggling–they demonstrate significant trends across the rural West.

The study reviews the 276 non-metro counties in the 11 contiguous western states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. The counties were broken into quartile groups by share of federal land for analysis.

Explore Western Rural Counties

These same findings–of better economic performance in four key economic indicators–hold on average for non-metro western counties with a larger share of protected federal lands, such as National Parks, Wilderness, National Conservation Areas, National Monuments, and National Wildlife Refuges.

federal lands economic performance 2015

These findings do not represent a short-term business cycle or the influence of a single industry. They show that as the regional western economy grows during the longer-term, federal lands and protected federal lands in rural counties are associated on average with better economic performance. Details can be found in the printable version of this report.

Headwaters Economics also has compiled a number of regional reports, case studies, tools, research library, and related news articles on the value of public lands to nearby communities; along with an extensive slideshow (PDF) outlining the economic role of federal lands in today’s economy and the importance of public lands in rural development.

Megan Lawson, Ph.D.

  megan@headwaterseconomics.org       406.570.7475

Megan leads Headwaters Economics’ research in outdoor recreation, economic development, and demographics. She has more than 20 years’ experience as a quantitative economist analyzing policies and trends for communities, governments, and nonprofit organizations.