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Guest opinion: Large national monuments don’t damage rural economies — but they don’t help either

Cattle are moved along the roadway between Boulder and Escalante within the Grand Stair Case National Monument .
Cattle are moved along the roadway between Boulder and Escalante within the Grand Stair Case National Monument .
Jeffrey Allred, Deseret News

Sen. Mike Lee recently introduced Senate Bill 3193, the “Protect Utah’s Rural Economy Act,” or PURE Act. Sen. Lee’s editorial in support of this bill, appearing in the Deseret News on July 11, argues that national monument designations under the Antiquities Act of 1906 result in costly “restrictions on travel, recreation and economic opportunities.” The PURE Act would exempt Utah from Antiquities Act designations (or extensions) unless approved by both Congress and the Utah Legislature.

The economic effects of national monuments are hotly debated. On one side, people assert that large, landscape-scale national monuments curtail grazing, mining and energy activities, diminish economic development alternatives, or even cause regional economic ruin. Others claim these same national monuments support a growing tourism sector, accelerate economic growth and free local economies from dependency on volatile commodities markets.

But here’s the thing: There is no evidence that large national monuments have any aggregate economic effect, either positive or negative.

My colleague, Sherzod Akhundjanov, and I recently published a detailed analysis of the effects of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument on per capita income in Garfield and Kane counties. This peer-reviewed research found no effect of monument designation on per capita income in either county. The economic impacts often claimed in news reports or opinion pieces reflect only the narrow experience of a person or an industry; they do not necessarily signal the aggregate impacts across many people and many industries.

We have since extended this research to counties hosting nine other large Western monuments and have found similar results: None of the 20 counties has experienced a statistically significant change in per capita income.

Our research does not claim that monument designation has not affected individuals: Surely, some people have been damaged economically (for example, those in the livestock industry) while others have benefited (those in the tourism industry). Rather, we have found that any income losses in one industry have been offset by gains in another industry. Further, this balancing effect has occurred over a relatively small geographic area.

The results of our two studies have been validated by the Bureau of Land Management’s recently released planning documents for the former Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. BLM reports that the difference in labor income between the most environmentally friendly management option (Alternative A, the status quo) and the option that maximizes commodity production (Alternative D) is $1.58 million. While that may sound like a big number, it represents a mere 0.6 percent of total labor income in the region, an amount that is surely within the margin of error for the modeling exercise.

Thus, the premise of Senate Bill 3193 is flawed: Antiquities Act proclamations of large national monuments do not affect aggregate economic outcomes. Instead, monument designations simply shift economic activity from one set of industries to another set of industries.

None of our research—or the BLM study, for that matter — answers the truly relevant economic question: Does the designation of a particular national monument improve economic efficiency? Do the benefits of monument designation outweigh the costs?

To answer this question we must compare the use and non-use benefits of designation (such as values for recreation and ecosystem services) to the incremental cost of managing public land as a national monument and the opportunity cost of foregone commercial activity (primarily agriculture, forestry, energy and mining). Benefit-cost analyses are time-consuming and expensive to execute properly and, as yet, no one has conducted a study of large national monuments. Until then, all we’re doing is pushing income from one side of the table to another without knowing which is the right thing to do.

This research was funded solely by the Utah Agricultural Experiment Station and the Utah Extension Service; the author is not affiliated with any Koch fund.