It is almost taken for granted in America that, when it comes to the environment, you have two choices: either the environment is protected and the economy suffers, or you build up the economy but trash the environment. This assumption has defined arguments since the environmental movement began in the 1950s — and has led to more than half a century of bad policies and lost opportunities.

But like many on the right, I believe we can easily have a smaller government, a more free market-economy and a healthy, protected environment. No one wants polluted air and water — and a healthy environment actually produces a lot of economic benefits, as illustrated in a new paper by my colleagues Ryan Cooper and Eli Lehrer of the R Street Institute.

Cooper and Lehrer note the numbers when it comes to the environment. Outdoor recreation delivers $646 billion in consumer spending and more than six million jobs. They cite a study from Headwaters Economics that finds “on average, western non-metro counties have a per capita income that is $436 higher for every 10,000 acres of protected public lands within their boundaries.” One of the more startling things is how stable this demand for recreation is; as Cooper notes, even when people abandon expensive plans during hard times, they may “downshift to more affordable vacations.”

The real key, however, goes back to the Headwaters report. Most of the recreational land, especially in the West, is owned by the federal government under a variety of agencies. National parks, national monuments, national forests — to the uninitiated it seems very complex and confusing. It’s also very intensive; in the Western states, the government owns most of the land. Indeed, Washington, D.C., controls a majority of the property in Nevada, Alaska, Utah, Oregon, and Idaho, as shown by this New York Times map.

This means that anything involving the environment — such as mining and oil — naturally involves the federal government to a great extent. The typical tea party response would be to argue for privatization of these lands, but Cooper and Lehrer argue that’s not the best option. While extraction does result in billions of dollars of economic growth, it can also harm the recreation economy, creating brief booms as companies come in and develop but leaving behind longer periods of bust. There’s also the problem of oil companies’ bidding up unskilled labor to the point where other businesses can’t hire workers, as Cooper and Lehrer illustrate with Vernal, Utah. The problem comes from the sometimes boom-and-bust nature of extractive industry. If the price of the particular commodity falls, that can lead to a hasty departure of capital from the region.

What’s a free-market type to do? Cooper and Lehrer point out two roles for government: making lands accessible, and making sure they don’t constantly degrade from all the visitors. The authors make a case for federal involvement, noting that the numerous types of federal land — national parks, monuments, and land that’s merely managed — allow a variety of different activities, and that cooperation between local authorities and federal overseers leads to benefits for all. I question, however, how much the federal government really is needed. There are numerous examples of privately owned parks that also protect the environment and create jobs. And while the authors cite the government shutdown, which closed down the parks, as an example of government overreach, I think that’s a bad example. Previous shutdowns did not affect the national parks, and indeed, some sources indicate that closing the parks was a purely political move on the part of the administration to turn public pressure on Republicans. Woes of the shutdown affecting parks and tourism is an argument for more privatization, not more government oversight.

There is most certainly a place for the feds. Keeping truly national monuments and places — such as Mt. Saint Helens, the ancient Navajo sites, and the Grand Canyon — open and clean is one thing. But perhaps their best role is to lay down basic ground rules for conduct, allowing plenty of room for recreation and extraction to operate side by side. Doing so would protect our natural heritage, but not at the expense of American jobs.

Now that’s an environmentalism I can get behind.

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