Federal lands and transitional economies

Headwaters Economics has released this update to a report discussed at length here last year:

 “Rural counties in the West with more federal lands performed better on average than their peers with less federal lands in four key economic measures.”

“This update of research from last year finds that from the early 1970s to the early 2010s, population, employment, and personal income on average all grew significantly faster—two times faster or more—in western rural counties with the highest share of federal lands compared to counties with the lowest share of federal lands. Per capita income growth was slightly higher in counties with more federal land.”

An article on “transitional communities” adds:

“Rural decline is a large and complex issue that appears to be accelerating. According to the Pew Charitable Trust, during the period between 1994–2010, 38.4 percent of U.S. rural counties lost population; since 2010, over two-thirds of rural counties lost population.  This level of decline has far-reaching national and international implications for food and energy production, tourism, and national culture and identity.”

Putting them together, it looks like public lands can be an important asset for minimizing or avoiding rural decline, if communities can get their act together to embrace this potential and plan for it.

“Particularly in declining communities where long-established residents remember the charm of life in simpler times, residents can have considerable resistance to change. This connection and preservation of the past, while a rural virtue, can impede its adaptation into the future. Resistance to any proposed solution that “hasn’t been done before” simply impedes innovation or positive transition.”


  1. Interesting, I am curious if the increase in income in rural counties with higher percentage of Fed lands is a result of folks being employed in those communities or are they working in Urban areas and choosing to move to those locations / build second homes there? If it is a result of the latter, then I can see why their might be some reluctance to “embrace this potential”.

  2. Maybe people find areas with a large component of federal land “attractive” enough to move there; perhaps preferable to, for example, industrial forest areas with heavy logging activity. Doesn’t home construction, increased land value and sales, and associated economic activity count in economic calculations as much as a mill job? Is such an economy necessarily “worse” or merely different?

  3. It’s the same with the Pacific Ocean. The closer to the salt water, the higher the property value. The same goes for most any waterfront property — fresh or salt. Maybe Headwaters ought to look at the economies of coastal towns, such as many in Oregon, where the number of timber-industry jobs have declined as tourism and retirement/vacation service jobs have proliferated.

  4. Second homes pay the same property taxes as first homes, and a lot more than an empty lot.

    As Kurt Vonnegut wrote: “You can’t fight progress. The best you can do is ignore it, until it finally takes your livelihood and self-respect away.” Or you can embrace it. America has always been about catching the next wave, or risking getting left behind.

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