President Joe Biden has begun the first step in reviewing the boundaries and protections of two national monuments in Utah: Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. The outgoing administration shrunk these monuments by millions of acres in 2017, but evidence shows that the designation of monuments can create jobs and boost local economies.
President Joe Biden signed a variety of executive orders on his first day in office, with several of the new orders related to action on climate change and other environmental priorities. The president has signed the United States back into the Paris climate accords, for example, and has rescinded the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline.
Biden also has issued an order for the Secretary of the Interior to review the boundaries and protections of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. Former President Trump reduced the sizes of the two Utah monuments in December 2017 by a combined two million acres—shrinking Bears Ears by 85 percent and Grand Staircase-Escalante by 50 percent and opening the door to new mining, drilling, and livestock grazing on the lands. Restoring the monuments could be a key component of Biden’s pledge to conserve 30 percent of America’s lands and waters by 2030.
Critics of national monuments often argue that monument designations hurt local economies by restricting valuable resource extraction activities and livestock grazing on federal lands. Former President Trump’s 2017 decision to reduce the Utah monuments was in response to requests from the Utah congressional delegation and officials in the southern part of the state, who expressed skepticism about the economic value of monuments as part of a broader effort to increase local influence over federal land management.
But this “environment versus jobs” dichotomy is misplaced and outdated. Both of us have conducted separate and independent research related to the economic impacts of national monument designation, published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, and our findings simply do not show that monuments have hurt local economies. On the contrary, our research convincingly concludes that national monument designations have had statistically significant positive effects on several measures of local economic performance and zero effect on others.
Dr. Jakus’s analysis, with Utah State University colleague Sherzod Akhundjanov, finds that monument designations cause no change in per-capita income in counties that are home to large monuments. Dr. Walls’s study, with Resources for the Future (RFF) colleagues Patrick Lee and Matthew Ashenfarb, finds that monument designations lead to increases in the number of business establishments and jobs in areas surrounding the monuments. Additionally, the RFF study finds no effect, positive or negative, on average wage incomes—a finding consistent with the Jakus and Akhundjanov results.
In their study, Walls and colleagues also investigate the effects of monuments on specific industries and find that monument designations cause significant increases in jobs for the construction industry and several service industries—hotels and lodging; business services; health care; and finance, insurance, and real estate services. Importantly, Walls and her coauthors identify no effect on the average number of jobs in mining, forestry, and livestock grazing—the industries that rely on public lands in the American West.
Together, our studies cover 21 national monuments, large and small, in 11 western states. The statistical approach used in the studies, which compares areas near these monuments to other similar areas before and after the monuments’ designations, identifies causal effects of the designations. Although individual monuments may have caused some minor negative impacts here and there, we can say with conviction that, on average across the western United States, monument designations have caused no harm to local economies and, by several measures, have offered substantial economic benefits.
We want to be clear. The purpose of a national monument designation is to protect lands that contain, in the words of the 1906 Antiquities Act, “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest.” National monuments preserve some of our country’s most important Indigenous American artifacts, structures, and sacred cultural sites. The lands in the originally designated Bears Ears monument are home to over 100,000 archaeological sites. Several southwestern tribes consider Bears Ears to be a sacred site and regularly hold tribal ceremonies on the lands. Grand Staircase-Escalante is a unique geologic treasure and, since the monument was originally designated in 1996, paleontologists have discovered fossil remains from 25 new species of dinosaurs there. Many monuments are known for their spectacular, rugged scenery. And several national parks began as national monuments, such as Grand Canyon in Arizona, Zion and Bryce Canyon in Utah, and Joshua Tree in California.
The value of such places cannot be properly measured by how much they grow the local workforce or shift local wages. But the economic value of these monuments is important, real, and likely sizable. In conversations about designations of monuments and other protected lands, however, the potential negative economic impacts always loom large. People often ask, Will we lose valuable jobs if national monument and other protections are placed on public lands? Our findings say no. Moreover, our findings are consistent with the well-documented contribution of outdoor recreation to the US economy—a contribution sustained by public lands.
The COVID-19 pandemic took a toll on the outdoor recreation economy in 2020, but at the same time, Americans took to the outdoors in droves. The value of our public lands, parks, and open spaces appears higher than ever. The recreation economy will rebound in force when the pandemic subsides. President Biden has emphasized jobs and economic recovery as a primary objective of his administration; restoring the two Utah monuments to their original size can be one step toward this goal.