One of the greatest things about America is her natural beauty. From the peaks of the Rockies to the lowlands of the Great Plains, to the eastern and western seaboards and the deserts of the southwest, the frozen tundra of Alaska and the tropical islands of Hawaii, we are truly blessed with a beautiful country. As Americans, we should be taking care of this beauty for the next generation, and as conservatives, we should do it in a way that minimizes the public cost.
Fortunately, there is a way for us to do both.
Tomorrow marks the 31st anniversary of the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, formalized two years after the 1980 eruption. Established by President Ronald Reagan, the 110,000-acre monument is used for research, recreation and education. It’s also very important economically. In Washington state alone, $22.5 billion is spent annually by consumers on outdoor recreation, and the industry drives 227,000 jobs.
Recovery is still continuing even 30 years after the eruption, and amazingly it is being done without costing taxpayers a dime. Improvements to the monument and its surrounding park, the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, have on several occasions been paid for out of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Established in 1965, the program collects fees from offshore oil and gas drillers, then reinvests that money into our national parks, watersheds around rivers, national forests and wildlife preserves, and state and local programs. By beginning with private sector employers paying taxpayers for the right to drill for resources in public waters, and then ending with private sector employers leveraging parks for the recreational economy, we have a rock solid cycle that not only protects our environment but also creates jobs. That’s green both ways.
Some on the right side of the political aisle might want to sell off public lands, but that’s not always a great decision. At least one study has shown that, in the western half of the United States, non-metropolitan counties with more than 30 percent of their lands under federal protection saw, from 1970 to 2010, a 345 percent increase in jobs. Most of these jobs are in the service industries, such as health care, high-tech professional positions,or real estate. Indeed, the study suggests that entrepreneurs are moving out west not only to enjoy our country’s national beauty for themselves, but also to improve quality of life for their employees–and attract top talent.
Small wonder, then, that Reagan’s presidency accounts for roughly 10 percent of the wilderness areas under the National Wilderness Preservation System. Indeed, he protected about five times as many acres of federal land than President Obama has so far. He knew that protecting our natural wilderness can also help boost local economies. Certainly, we can have a robust debate over what is reasonable in environmental protection. We should also not be afraid of oil and gas drilling; companies that rely on resource extraction have a vested interest to make sure that the lands they use are not despoiled for eternity.
However, this is a path that demands caution, thoughtfulness and nuanced approaches, especially as we grapple with the size of government. As we move forward, and as pressure on our government’s finances increase, we will have to look toward programs like the Land and Water Conservation Fund to protect our lands. Raising taxes or simply enlarging government will not do the trick.
Tomorrow, as the anniversary of the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument comes upon us, let’s take a moment to think about the wondrous beauty in our nation, and how we can protect that without increasing the size of government even more.