The Great American Outdoors Act recently passed the Senate, enjoys the support of President Donald Trump, and is poised to pass in the House. This act does two things that are important to Utah. First, it funds the long-standing backlog of deferred maintenance projects needed to improve and enhance our national parks — and we all know how much Utah’s national parks bring to our economy. And second, the Great American Outdoors Act fully and permanently funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). The money in this fund uses a percentage of offshore oil and gas royalties to pay for public open space of all kinds. Since the fund was created in 1965, it has paid for hundreds of projects in every state, from riverfront parkways to trails to baseball fields.

But despite its popularity, most of Utah’s D.C. delegation is voting against it, and their reasoning is historic. Many westerners come from a proud history of self-sufficiency. Their ancestors had what it takes to survive and prosper in the American West. For them and for most of human history, private land ownership and living off the land through farming, ranching or mining has been the most honorable way to provide for the family.  All other options were pretty much snake oil. 

From this perspective, federal land ownership has prohibited the descendants of Western pioneers from owning more private land and thus generating more wealth. So, for many western lawmakers, LWCF with its provisions for buying more public land (even though the sellers are willing) grates against both the history of their grandfathers and the future of their children.

The ideology that federal land ownership threatens economic prosperity is in need of a 21st century update. Today there are literally thousands of ways to make a living that do not involve private land ownership. And in fact, shared ownership of natural places is contributing to today’s prosperous communities — including Salt Lake City, where access to shared public land is a major economic driver. Adobe, Goldman Sachs and the Silicon Slopes companies have sought after offices in Utah precisely because skiing, hiking, jeeping, mountain biking and river running come with the job.

In Utah we enjoy an amazing quality of life that Eastern states aspire to. Demand for outdoor recreation assets — land in its natural state — has skyrocketed. People are looking for places to enjoy the outdoors. Communities that have popular recreation assets on federal lands are attracting both visitors and companies seeking high quality of life. 

Federal land is not prohibiting Utah’s youth from making a living; it is instead bringing a cornucopia of jobs. Yet despite this blessing, many of Utah’s elected officials bemoan the vast amount of imaginary property tax that the state could be collecting if we could just sell off all those federal acres. The massive cliffs and canyons, the remote mountain ranges, and the deep drainages that make up Utah’s incredible landscapes ended up in the federal estate precisely because they were never homesteaded. Most of these acres are not suitable for development and will never yield the property taxes which more habitable terrains provide. Nor will they produce food or beef or even useful minerals. Instead their value comes from the joy and solace that only time in nature can deliver.

Voting against this bill is a direct hit to Utah’s rural communities where oil, gas and coal are no longer growing industries. Plus, it undermines valuable projects like the Bonneville Shoreline Trail along the Wasatch Front, historic preservation efforts like the Jarvie Ranch in Browns Park and the work to acquire inholdings in the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area in Washington County.  

It is also a vote against conserving agricultural lands, like the Bar J Ranch which was saved in December of 2000 using LWCF funds. At the time, the Deseret News reported that the Jorgensen family was overjoyed: ”I would hate to see this property, which has meant so much to me and my family, have to be sold and developed,” Jorgensen said. “Today our Christmas wish has come true. The Bar J Ranch will remain intact forever.” Former Sen. Bob Bennett agreed: “This is a win-win for Sevier County, and a lasting legacy for Utah’s future.”

Many western lawmakers have a longstanding connection to the land, and we need their input as we work to live sustainably going forward. Utah’s delegation should take cues from Utah. Rep. Ben McAdams, who supports the Great American Outdoors Act. Change is inevitable, and moving beyond the watch words of your ancestors can be necessary to prosper in a changing world. Nature is part of the human experience and providing outdoor opportunities for all Americans is both a powerful economic initiative and an honorable pursuit.

Ashley Korenblat is CEO of Western Spirit Cycling and a managing director at Public Land Solutions, a nonprofit supporting economic development in Western communities.