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National Monument Designation Doesn't Hurt Local Economies, Says Utah Professor

Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.
Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.

In the next month or so, the Trump administration will announce its plan to shrink or modify large national monuments across the country. Some people are heralding the decision, saying these designations are federal land grabs that strangle local economies and kill jobs.

Others say national monuments help local economies by boosting tourism. But an economist from Utah told a crowd in Bozeman on Thursday they might both be wrong.

In a case study of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Utah State professor of economics Paul Jakus says the Clinton administration was trying to protect a beautiful place without hurting the local economy.

"Was that strategy successful? It sure looks like it was. It did not damage the local economies, okay? It didn't," he says.

But it also didn’t help the economy, either. During a lecture at Montana State University, Jakus says even though tourism has boomed in the counties surrounding Grand Staircase.

"These jobs tend to be relatively low paying, about half of a mining and coal job, basically. Mining and coal these days pays about $27-28, leisure and hospitality — non management position — are about $13 an hour,” he says.

Mining and coal are the reasons why Trump may modify Grand Staircase, and Jakus says when he speaks with people down there, they complain that a lack of coal development has hurt their economy.

“Unfortunately, there was never a ton of coal that was ever taken off the monument, and therefore it never actually had a chance to influence income in the region. Never had a chance to influence employment down there,” he says.

Jakus looked at how eighteen different economic characteristics in the counties surrounding Grand Staircase changed over the past two decades. He then compared that data with some control counties that weren’t under monument designation, and bottom line: there wasn’t a lot of difference. 

Jakus has only studied one national monument so far. Grand Staircase. But in light of Trump’s impending decision, he’s expanding that study across the Western U.S. — including a look at the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument in Montana. 

“Is this result just strictly for the Grand Staircase or is this more general? Can this be applied to others. So we’ve started down that path,” he says. 

Jakus says he also wants to start looking at how national monuments impact individual communities, not just counties.  

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