What ifs and if onlys: Anti-wilderness claims just don’t add up

A hearing on tax relief programs in counties with abundant federal land turned into yet another soap-box rap session for anti-wilderness representatives today.

Rep. Rob Bishop played host to Southern Utah University professor Ryan Yonk, who gave testimony to the Public Lands Subcommittee about his recently issued (though un-peer-reviewed) paper asserting wilderness and protective designations for federal lands have a “non positive” or even “negative” impact on local communities.

What that has to do with the Payments in Lieu of Taxes program, through which the federal government gives subsidies to counties with federal land to make up for a lack of property taxes–and the intended subject of the hearing–was unclear.

Nevertheless, Yonk was there to testify that conservation hurts rural communities. That’s an assertion that contradicts those made recently by Headwaters Economics, which studied 17 national monument designations made post-1982 and found that in no case did the local economies suffer as a result.

Yet, even though he was there as the anti-wilderness poster child, Yonk’s case fell short in the indictment of protecting federal lands. For example:

–Yonk said protections for lands “increase costs to communities.” But he hedged when addressing whether undoing said protections would equal a golden goose. “Establishing what would happen gets to be very difficult and it involves examining what resources are actually available on which public lands.” In other words, sweeping generalizations about these things are tricky.

–A recent  Headwaters Economics report found in Kane and Garfield Counties, the two counties with access to the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, all indicators of economic growth improved following monument designation. Yonk testified the problem he saw with that was Headwaters used government growth data without taking into account what kind of growth the area may have had anyway, in a vacuum, regardless of the monument, or what kind of growth other non-monument counties similar in nature experienced. Because Headwaters’ purpose was to investigate what the relationship between monuments and growth actually is, the critique is silly. The fact, like it or not, is that no correlation between monuments and negative growth existed.

–Finally, Yonk testified that he takes into account the “opportunity costs” of conservation designations, like whether industry could have developed the land were it not under conservation-oriented management. But Yonk said even so, his study didn’t take into account the much-lamented-by-Bishop lost opportunity cost of the Andalex Coal Mine that once was proposed for the remote Kaiparowits Plateau. Why?

“We have serious doubts about whether it would have been open today,” Yonk said, citing what he perceives as a “regulatory burden.”

So instead of a theoretical coal Shangri-La that wouldn’t be active anyway, 15 years ago we protected a spectacular piece of the American West for all future generations to enjoy–an act an overwhelming majority of Economist readers just agreed has innate value. Sounds like that “opportunity cost” was actually a bargain.