The Wealth of Nature: Environmental Quality, Not Mining, Logging, or Ranching, Is Driving Local Economic Development in the West

By Power, Thomas Michael | Issues in Science and Technology, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview
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The Wealth of Nature: Environmental Quality, Not Mining, Logging, or Ranching, Is Driving Local Economic Development in the West


Power, Thomas Michael, Issues in Science and Technology


Although national polls show a widespread consensus on the importance of environmental quality, conflict over environmental issues has escalated dramatically at local and regional levels. In rural areas, where politics are personal and natural resource-based industries have played an important economic role, the conflict has at times taken on the characteristics of a civil war. Communities, civic organizations, and local governments are split into hostile camps. What was once a war of words has escalated into violence in dozens of incidents in several western states.

The combatants in these communities see a lot at stake. On the environmental side, the very animal species that defined huge ecosystems - the grizzly bear, salmon, and wolf - are on the verge of extinction. The dominant features of our landscapes - mountainsides, rivers, deserts, and prairies - face major and permanent modification. On the extractive industry side, whole ways of life that have supported families for generations are threatened: logging, mining, farming, and the manufacturing activities built around them. With so much permanently at risk, it is not surprising that both sides have been mobilizing resources for a prolonged struggle.

One reason that the debate over environmental issues has become so heated and divisive is that people in many rural communities see their economic futures as tied exclusively to the extractive activities that do the most damage to the landscape. That paints them into a very difficult corner. Even if they would like to protect the natural landscape, they are not willing to pay the price of throwing family members or neighbors out of work and forcing them to move away from their homes. Economic insecurity makes people desperate; it breeds the fear and hostility that has come to infect the debate over environmental policy in many rural communities.

If we can lay to rest the fear that environmental protection will cause the imminent economic collapse of local communities, we can moderate the acrimonious tone of the debate. For that reason, it is very important to analyze critically two points: the economic role actually played by extractive industry in local communities and the impact that protected landscapes are likely to have on the local economy.

The data indicate that extractive industry does not play as central a role in local economies as is usually assumed. Natural resource industries relying upon public lands are rarely responsible for more than a tiny sliver of regional employment. Metal mining on public lands in the West, for instance, is directly responsible for fewer than 1 in 2,500 jobs in the 12 western states. Grazing on public lands in the West is responsible for only 1 in 1,700 jobs. Even the federal timberlands in the Pacific Northwest states, the nation's so-called timber basket, directly provide only about 1.5 percent of the region's jobs. Meanwhile, other sources of income in the region have grown steadily. The income generated by service-sector jobs throughout the West is greater than the aggregate income generated by all of the natural resource industries combined, according to data gathered by the U.S. Commerce Department. The same holds true for retirement income.

In many rural areas, moreover, protected landscapes and environmental quality directly support local economic vitality. They are among the driving forces in the resettlement of many nonmetropolitan regions and the economic renaissance taking place there. Rather than being an economic millstone around these communities' necks, environmental quality has tamed out to be the source of considerable economic growth. As a result, the choices "extractive-dependent" communities face, as well as their likely futures, are nowhere near as grim as portrayed by anti-environmentalists.

The missing ghost towns

Throughout the inland West, the 1980s were a time of trouble for the extractive industries of metal mining and smelting, ranching, and timber.

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