The economic benefits of protected lands: A government-lite approach

During the 1966 fight over whether to construct dams within the Grand Canyon, the Sierra Club made their objections known through a full-page advertisement in the New York Times. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation had been arguing the new reservoirs would be a boon to visitors by allowing powerboats to get closer to the canyon walls. Sierra’s response: “Should We Also Flood the Sistine Chapel So Tourists Can Get Nearer the Ceiling?”

This example is typical of how conservation debates have played out since the birth of the environmental movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

Liberals typically argue that certain places should be protected from development because of their aesthetic merit, because certain endangered species should be protected or because some proposed development would cause pollution. Conservatives retort that the luxury good of conservation is something taxpayers can’t afford and the wilderness must be sacrificed for the sake of economic progress.

The binary nature of this debate – the classic dichotomy of “the environment” versus “the economy” – is woefully incomplete. Environmental problems sometimes quickly become economic or societal problems. A misguided Soviet irrigation scheme contributed greatly to the death of the Aral Sea, turning what was once the fourth-largest lake in the world largely into blasted salt flats. Or consider a recent study of air pollution in China that found it caused 1.2 million premature deaths in 2010, resulting not just in personal tragedy, but colossal expense, especially from chronic disease.

Just as environmental devastation can cause social and economic problems, a small-government approach to environmental preservation can be a source of economic benefits.

“Government-lite” conservation is an approach where places are opened up to visitation consistent with the long-term health of the attractions, founded on a good working relationship with local communities. This approach can create long-term economic benefits in nearby “gateway” communities and the nation as a whole, while preserving America’s natural heritage.

It’s a moderate path between total preservation and totally unrestricted resource exploitation, conserving those places that lure tourists, while still permitting resource extraction and devolving authority to states or the private sector where appropriate.

I visited seven towns and cities across the American West to see these contrasts in action firsthand.

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