Report: “West is Best” – Protected Lands Boost NM Jobs and Incomes

Renee Blake, Public News Service-NM

(12/14/12) LAS CRUCES, N.M. – It’s better in the West – the economy, that is.

An in-depth study of Western job growth was presented yesterday (Thursday) in Las Cruces. It showed that from 2000 to 2011, New Mexico’s real personal income grew by 31 percent.

Wayne Suggs is the co-founder of Classic New Mexico Homes. He developed a website and a book to feature his homes, area art and the natural beauty of southern New Mexico. And his experience is that a public lands backdrop is valuable.

“I just got a call from someone who lives on the edge of the Chesapeake Bay and he’s tired of the cold. I sent him the book and he said that that view of the Organs (Organ Mountains) – it’s the Tetons of the desert. That’s the kind of reaction that people have. And that’s something that we have to preserve.”

At the information session about how protected lands are increasing economic growth in the West, Suggs was one of the local business owners who cited the study as one more reason to approve the proposed Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument outside of Las Cruces.

Ben Alexander is an economist and the associate director of Headwaters Economics, the Montana-based think tank that published the report . He says for years, he and his colleagues noticed that the Western states with protected public lands within their borders were outperforming the U.S. economy. They wanted to know what makes the West competitive. They discovered that service industries are at the forefront of that new growth, and many service companies are not constrained by location.

“When we talked to the CEOs who are running many of these companies, we found that the workers they’re competing for are attracted by quality of place. Places that offer access for recreation, have scenic backdrops, are able to compete more successfully than the rest of the country.”

Economists believe protected federal lands are an important factor in driving the economic growth of the region. Alexander says Headwaters crunched some numbers.

“Our statistical analysis showed that for every 10,000 acres of protected federal lands there is an increase of $436 per capita income. So we would expect to see in a county with 100,000 acres of protected federal land, an increase of $4,360 per capita income.”

Alexander says that makes a pretty compelling case that counties with scenic and protected federal lands are attracting more people and creating more and better-paying jobs. The Headwaters study shows that non-metro counties in the West that feature more than 30 percent of federally protected lands, increased employment by 345 percent.