The economic engine of recreation

(The following op-ed was authored by Tom Campion and originally published in The Hill on January 19, 2015)

As Congress gets back in session and President Obama prepares to address the nation in his State of the Union, it is an important time for those of us who pay the bills to remind our elected officials about the people’s unfinished business lingering from last year and beyond. Out here in the West, one of the most critical, popular, and straightforward to-do’s left undone is boosting the American economy by permanently protecting some of America’s most majestic landscapes.

Idaho’s Boulder-White Clouds is a perfect example. This remarkable terrain has world-class recreation year round and is an economic engine for Central Idaho. Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Ida.) should be applauded for his persistent attempts to pass the Central Idaho Economic Development & Recreation Act (CIEDRA) to protect it. But it has languished in congress since 2004, and there is no need to wait any longer. President Obama should act now and protect the Boulder-White Clouds as a National Monument.

I opened my first Zumiez store in 1978, and my first in Idaho in Boise 20 years ago. We are an action sports lifestyle retail shop specializing in skateboard and snowboard apparel. Today, there are six stores in Idaho, and more than 550 in 49 states across the country. We’ve watched our business grow as the demand for access to outdoor recreation on public lands has exploded, from snowboarding, skiing and split-boarding the mountains, to surfing the coasts and skating in local parks.

When it comes to outdoor recreation, the Boulder-White Clouds have something for everyone who likes to get out there and explore – hiking, biking, hunting, fishing, boating, skiing, snowmobiling, camping, bird and wildlife viewing, you name it. Public demand for access to that much recreational opportunity is only going to rise as Western communities continue growing at rates faster than much of the rest of the US. That calls for long-term protection and management.

And we know that well-managed public lands are good for local economies. They generate direct revenue for the outfitters, guides, hospitality and other local businesses that comprise the recreation economy, and they also attract long term investment from people who want to live, work and play in adjacent communities.

Experts at Headwaters Economics have found that high wage service industries are spurring job growth across the West, as entrepreneurs and workers choose to work where they have ready access to high quality outdoor recreation. In fact, from 1970-2010, job growth across the West nearly doubled the rate of the rest of country, driven by health care, tech, finance, insurance and real estate jobs. And when you look at areas in direct proximity to protected federal public lands, Headwaters’ data show even higher job growth rates and higher per capita incomes.

As a businessman, that data is hard to ignore. At my company, we are always looking down the road to plan for long-term viability and competitiveness. That’s the kind of vision we need from Washington when it comes to public lands conservation – asking what is best for the long term, for the most people, with a sense of responsibility to the future.

Obama seems to be focusing in on that vision of late, having used his authority under the Antiquities Act thirteen times to protect some of the best recreational, cultural, historical and natural resources in America. And I was heartened to see him step up last month and permanently withdraw the waters of Bristol Bay, Alaska from offshore oil and gas drilling. Let’s hope he turns his gaze northward and sees the wisdom of doing the same for the Beaufort and Chukchi seas of Alaska’s north coast.

There are many more places across the West that are also worthy of permanent protection, from Colorado’s Brown’s Canyon to California’s Berryessa Snow Mountains, to the coastal plain of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And there is much more Obama can do to cement his legacy as one of our country’s greatest conservation leaders. Protecting the Boulder-White Clouds as a National Monument would be a great next step.