America’s public lands make up more than 640 million acres, covering more than 25% of the United States, and they are home to some of the world’s most incredibly diverse landscapes. Ranging from desolate deserts to lush temperate rainforests, the beauty and the accessibility of our public lands make them a hot spot for outdoor recreation. Every year 145 million Americans participate in outdoor recreation, whether that be through camping, skiing, fishing, skateboarding or any other leisure activity that takes place outside. These 145 million individuals are an indication of the massive demand for outdoor recreation and the equipment that often goes along with it. It is this massive demand that has allowed the outdoor recreation industry to grow exponentially and become a major player in the United States’ economy.
Last year there was an astounding $887 billion of consumer spending on outdoor recreation in the United States. This multi-hundred-billion-dollar spending has resulted in the rise of outdoor recreation retailers and the creation of 7.6 million American jobs. That is more than the number of jobs in the food and beverage services and real-estate combined.
Although not all of the outdoor recreation takes place on public lands, accessibility and natural allure make public lands the heart of the American outdoors and consequently the backbone of outdoor recreation. In order to ensure that these areas are protected and made available to all American citizens, the federal government has been entrusted with their management. Within the government there are four departments in charge of public lands; Department of the Interior, Department of Agriculture, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the United States’ Department of Defense. The first two, the Department of the Interior and Department of Agriculture are responsible for the vast majority of public lands, and include the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park System, Bureau of Reclamation, the National Wildlife Refuge System and the U.S. Forest Service. Like any structure of this magnitude, federal land management has its flaws, but the protection of public lands has led to undeniable mass appeal, exemplified by the 331 million visitors that national parks receive annually. It is this type of popularity that has provided a base for and enabled the success of the outdoor recreation industry.
Despite the sustainable economy that public lands have facilitated, politicized cries for the economic gains of resource extraction from these areas have put public lands into growing danger. Although these political agendas are often masked by arguments to increase access to public lands, many fear that certain policies could result in privatization and development. These agendas seek to switch management of public lands from the federal government to state governments, arguing that the federal government’s policies on how the land can be used makes access difficult, and state control would result in more relaxed policies, therefore improving their usability. However, when you dive a little deeper it becomes obvious that state governments don’t have the resources necessary to effectively manage all this land.
According to a study conducted in 2014, for instance, it would cost Utah's state and local governments $280 million dollars to manage that state's public lands, which is nearly 10 times the amount that is currently spent on agriculture, environmental quality and public lands by the state of Utah. Utah’s state government is already almost $8 billion in debt, and making the state responsible for the 34 million acres of public land that cover Utah wouldn't be feasible, and it would force the state to sell off large portions of land in order to sustain management.
This would likely be a common trend in states, especially in the West, where nearly 45% of the land is public. The result would be that these lands would become property of whoever has the capital to pay for them and an invested interested in doing so. The best fit for these attributes is the fossil fuel industry, whose private ownership would likely lead to unsustainable extraction of natural resources and environmental degradation.
The frightening irony of all of this is that, although the primary argument for privatizing public lands proposes positive impacts on the American economy, in actuality the sequestration of public lands would replace a long term and environmentally sustainable economy with a short term environmentally destructive one. Reducing public lands decreases access to the trails, campgrounds and skiable mountains that make the United States’ outdoor recreation industry successful. This is an industry that has far greater longevity and impacts far more people than fossil fuel based industries, and even today it is having greater economic impacts in a number of ways.
Last year, national parks, national wildlife refuges, national monuments and other public lands and waters accounted for $45 billion in economic output and about 396,000 jobs nationwide. Along with this, hunting and fishing alone directly employed 483,000 Americans. Comparatively, gasoline and fuel resulted in just $304 billion in consumer spending, and only 180,000 Americans were directly employed by oil and gas extraction. Privatizing public land would not only destroy some of the world's most cherished environments for the economic benefit of a few, it would also irreversibly set back the $887 billion outdoor recreation industry as a whole.
To learn more about the economics of the outdoor recreation industry read The Outdoor Industry Associations study, "The Outdoor Recreation Economy," which was the inspiration for this article.