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Utah ranks 6th in U.S. in economic contributions of public lands

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Landscape Arch in Arches National Park Nov, 10, 2007.

Landscape Arch in Arches National Park Nov, 10, 2007.

Ray Grass, Deseret News

Our national parks are a blockbuster for us as a tourism draw. I just can’t overstate the importance of our national parks. – Vicki Varela

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's vast public lands are a bone of political contention for top elected officials, but they put the state at No. 6 in the country for the economic contributions generated by energy development and recreation.

A new report released by the U.S. Department of Interior's Office of Policy Analysis provides a state-by-state analysis of the economic impacts that stem from lands managed by the agency, which oversees 20 percent of the nation's acreage.

Utah's numbers in energy and recreation put it behind oil-rich Texas, which came in at No. 1, and No. 5 California, a hot spot for energy development as well as a tremendous draw for visitors. It placed well ahead of its Western neighbors, with the exception of New Mexico, which came in third.

Overall, the national look at fiscal year 2012 activities showed 417 million visits to Interior-managed lands, generating $45 billion in economic output that supported 372,000 jobs.

In Utah, there were 17 million visits to DOI-managed lands, with 6.6 million visitors to its five national parks.

"Our national parks are a blockbuster for us as a tourism draw," said Vicki Varela, director of tourism, film and global branding for Utah. "I just can't overstate the importance of our national parks."

Varela said she isn't surprised that the state had such a good showing in the report.

"I feel like we are America's secret sauce," she said.

The national report said Utah's recreation sector had an economic contribution of $1.6 billion overall, and after deducting costs still generated nearly $1 billion. It noted that in 2011 alone, Arches National Park hosted more than 1 million visitors who spent upward of $65 million.

Varela said the office's "Mighty Five" campaign promoting the state's five national parks is paying off, stimulating interest both regionally and abroad.

"We've had spectacular feedback," she said, adding that international visitation is on the rise.

"It's like being in an international airport when you go into our national parks," Varela said.

Gateway communities, recognizing that hospitality will generate even more dollars, have done a good job of catering to that sector, she said.

"In Torrey, a lot of their signs are also in German," Varela said, noting the park outside Capitol Reef National Park is a popular favorite for Germans who like to rent a recreational vehicle and spend a long time exploring.

The recreation dollars generated from federal lands in Utah may resonate with the public because of familiar landscapes like that of Zion or Arches national parks, but the sector producing even more money is that of energy and mineral development.

According the report, the total economic output of that sector was nearly $9.8 billion in fiscal year 2012, and it still came in at nearly $7 billion after costs were excluded.

Cody Stewart, Gov. Gary Herbert's energy policy advisor, said the report highlights the value of energy production and prime recreational opportunities — and in most circumstances in Utah, they exist independent of one another.

"The majority of prime recreation areas in this state are not the same as the prime energy development areas," he said. "I'm not saying that conflicts don't exist — there are definitely conflicts — but they are not as often as people think."

Stewart, too, stressed that the Interior lands are producing dollars because of their scenic and recreational value, not because they are managed by the federal government.

"People don't come to those areas because they are federally managed. They come to these lands because they are unique, precious or visually stunning," he said.

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