Small towns and rural communities depend on recreation and tourism for large parts of their economy. This was obvious to me growing up. I’m from Wisconsin, where the summer tourism industry depends so heavily on student labor, public schools and universities can’t even start before September 1.
Western states also depend on recreation and tourism. Visitors to Bureau of Land Management(BLM) sagebrush landscapes spent an estimated $1 billion last year, according to a recent study.
Wait, $1 billion? With a ‘b’? Indeed. Camping, hunting, fishing, and other activities in 11 Western states brought in $623 million in direct spending and $1.06 billion in indirect spending. The study looked at 11 Western states, including Idaho, Nevada, Wyoming, Oregon, Colorado, and Utah. A whopping 67.8 million visitors spent time on land managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Surrounding communities benefitted economically from the visitors too.
The study shows how important good conservation is for rural economies. Hunting, fishing, bird watching, and guiding depend on strong conservation efforts for healthy wildlife and ecosystems. Without good conservation, visitors wouldn’t flock to these places.
Right now, rural communities in the West have a great opportunity to partner with federal agencies to build good conservation plans for the sagebrush ecosystem. It’s important to make these plans now. Without them, declining populations of species such as the sage grouse might require action under the Endangered Species Act.
The Endangered Species Act is an essential tool to protect species from extinction. It can also be disruptive to the people who live in the area. If voluntary conservation measures can raise sage grouse populations and benefit the local economy, that’s the ideal.
When small towns and rural main street business owners collaborate in developing conservation plans, both the local economy and the conservation plan is better. That way conservation plans are tailored to individual states and regions, as they should be.
Some Western states like Wyoming, Oregon, and Montana already have a great start on conservation plans. They can serve as models of how to achieve strong rural economies and stable populations of sage grouse and other declining species.
Imagine a conservation plan that protects existing rights, allows for new development, grows the tourism and recreation industry, and commits to habitat conservation to stabilize wildlife populations. By working together, we can make it happen.
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