Saturday, February 9, 2013

Sally Jewel and the Nation's Public Lands

by Nick Cunningham

The overarching mission of this blog is to demonstrate not only the intrinsic value of the global environment, but also the real economic value of ecosystem services. For example, one estimate puts the value of nature's ecosystem services (providing clean water, clean air, agricultural productivity, tourism, flood control, forest products, fisheries, and much more) at $33 trillion.

These ecosystem services are often taken for granted. When an oil company wants to drill on public lands, often drillers, policymakers, and local communities get excited over the billions of dollars that will flow with the crude. Yet, they don't factor in the loss - a real loss, which can be counted in dollars - from destroying the local environment. If oil is extracted, but the local waterway is fouled, it's not a clear win for the local economy.  The public picks up the tab for higher expenditures on public health, lost economic activity from other businesses in the area that may be affected, as well as cleaning up the water supply.

The news that President Obama will nominate Sally Jewel, the head of REI, an outdoors retail giant, to lead the Department of Interior, is interesting and potentially promising news. DOI is responsible for the stewardship of the vast stretches of public lands, particularly in the west. Interior often has to decide how much of the nation's public lands it wants to lease out for drilling. Ms. Jewel, an outdoor enthusiast, hopefully will recognize the huge benefits that accrues to this nation from its public lands.

Timothy Egan has an excellent Op-Ed in The New York Times on Ms. Jewel and the outlook for her department. He first describes the distorted view of the past two Presidents towards our nation's public lands. Here is an excerpt:

For all the ranchers and wildcatters, the loggers and right-wing county commissioners who clamor for control of the nation’s public lands, the dominant user is an urbanite, who bikes, skis, rafts, climbs, hunts, fishes, watches birds, waits for sunsets with a camera or finds an antidote for “nature deficit disorder” in a weekend on a high plateau.  
Yet this silent majority is taken for granted. Obama, following down the ravaged path of George W. Bush, has made it easy for oil and gas drillers to industrialize huge swaths of land that are owned by every citizen. About six million acres have been leased to drillers in the last four years; a total of 44 million acres are under lease now.  
Bush made oil and gas drilling his number-one priority for Interior’s lands. Obama has not significantly altered that course.  
“We are drilling all over the place,” Obama said in defense of his policies during the presidential campaign. At the same time, less public land has been permanently protected under Obama than by any of the prior four presidents.  
Every time gas prices go up, some demagogue will say it’s because we aren’t sucking enough oil out of our shared setting, when in fact there is no connection between the global price of oil and annual output from government leases. But Obama has been afraid to rally the larger conservation and recreational-user coalition because he fears the wrath of the fossil-fuel crowd.  
In part, this is because those who value the prairies, canyons, mountains and grasslands of Interior for something other than extraction have been largely missing from the debate. They let buffoonish politicians from rural Western areas drone on about the need to put even more public lands under control of the oil industry. They allow corporate interests who are more at home on a Saudi golf course than in a slick-rock canyon in southern Utah to speak for the West.    
Just recently, that has started to change. The outdoor recreational industry directly supports three times more jobs than the oil and gas sector. People who play in the American outdoors spend $646 billion a year, responsible for 6.1 million jobs.
That last point is particularly interesting. Often conservation is put at odds with "economic development," with many thinking that if we set aside public lands for conservation we derive no value from it.
And on Ms. Jewel:

It’s not just that Jewell has climbed Mount Rainier, kayaked innumerable frothy waterways, skied and snowboarded double-diamond runs. Nor that, as chief executive of the nation’s largest consumer cooperative — Recreational Equipment Inc., the retailer known as REI — she knows that Americans spend more money on outdoor equipment than they do on pharmaceuticals or gasoline. 
But Jewell — a city-dweller, educated, articulate about the importance of nature in a modern life — is a prototypical citizen of the 21st century American West, still the geography of hope, in Wallace Stegner’s timeless phrase.
Jewell can be an exuberant evangelist on behalf of trying to get kids from the inner cities into the mountains. There is a profound disconnect, she often says, between modern life and the natural world. And those city dwellers without money are the ones missing out most.
How she approaches the job remains to be seen, but here's hoping.

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