(CN) – It’s the economy, stupid.
So goes the old saw that puts the economic ramifications at the center of every major policy decision.
The economy, therefore, is the chief reason cited when talking about the need to reduce the size and scope of some of the largest conservation areas in the American West.
Take the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.
In 1996, President Bill Clinton dedicated the monument and preserved 1.9 million acres of pristine wilderness located near Zion National Park in southeastern Utah. But after winning the White House in 2016, President Donald Trump reduced the monument by 47%, earning him plaudits from many Utahans who resented the initial designation as an encroachment on their ability to make money via natural resource extraction.
Specifically, Clinton’s designation effectively killed a coal mining operation, as a seam of hydrocarbons sits just beneath the surface on the Kaiparowits Plateau along the monument’s southern border. The seam contains about 9 billion tons of coal.
While environmentalists and conservationists talk about the ecological values involved in undoing the preservation of nearly a million acres of land for the purposes of mining and other economic activity, there is an increasing movement afoot to make an economic case for the preservation of national monuments.
A study published Wednesday in Science Advances showed national monuments have mostly positive effects on local economies in the American West.
Specifically, the designation of monuments led to an average of an 8% to 10% increase in businesses compared to control groups. The boost in services wasn’t necessarily restricted to recreation businesses, but business services, financial services and the construction industry received a boost as well.
“Rural communities in the U.S. are changing and their economies transitioning away from a reliance on resource-dependent industries,” wrote study authors Margaret Walls, Patrick Lee, and Matthew Ashenfarb.
The authors selected 14 different national monuments distributed throughout eight states in the American West and compared the surrounding communities with other similarly situated communities that are not in proximity to monuments.
Along with finding an increase in new business activity, researchers found something unexpected — the designations did not dramatically impinge on natural resource industries that rely on public lands like mining, grazing and forestry. In fact, there was no net effect at all, either positive or negative on such industries as a result of the designations.
“Our results suggest that protecting some of these public lands as national monuments does not exacerbate these trends, but rather could even be reversing them and creating a new set of economic forces oriented around the historic, cultural, and scenic amenities these public lands provide,” the authors said.
The average wage for workers in the area was also unaffected.
The study notes that monument detractors often argue that the new businesses, like hospitality or recreation, may provide more jobs, but they are often low-wage compared to working in natural resource industries.
“The study finds strong evidence to suggest otherwise,” the authors wrote.
Walls, Lee and Ashenfarb said they compiled a unique set of data and used advanced statistics to determine how the monument designations affected nearby jobs, wage income, businesses, and industries.
In the executive order Trump issued to reduce Grand Staircase, he also ordered the reduction of Bears Ears National Monument, another large swath of land set aside by President Barack Obama before leaving office in late 2016.
Trump ordered an 85% reduction of Bears Ears that would eliminate about 1.3 million acres from the monument.
There are legal challenges to the reductions of both monuments in Utah, with arguments hinging on the claim that a president cannot unilaterally reduce monuments without Congressional approval.
The outcomes of these lawsuits will have far-reaching impacts on the president’s ability to both preserve and shrink national monuments and the conservation movement in general.