The highest economic value of Idaho’s public land doesn’t come from mining, logging, ranching or tourism, economist Ray Rasker said. Its primary value is as a magnet for companies and their most creative and educated employees, Rasker told a Boise City Club and Idaho Environmental Forum audience Thursday. “It’s a way to attract talent,” Rasker said. Rasker’s message was not lost on Idaho Commerce Secretary Jeff Sayer, who was in the audience. He and his staff highlight Idaho’s open space in its business recruitment, he noted. “The value of the recreation and lifestyle we have here is one of our strongest attractions,” Sayer said. Communities that thrive in the modern economy, said Rasker, are able to attract the high-wage segment of the service economy. Another major driver of job creation is the infusion of people who bring their own investment and retirement income, and health care benefits. Rasker, director of Headwaters Economics in Bozeman, Mont., cites the example of his own backyard: the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem — 18 million acres surrounding Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. Its economic and population growth rivals other high-technology growth areas in the nation, including Silicon Valley and the Puget Sound. Since 1990, its population has grown 45 percent. Jobs have increased by 69 percent and personal income grew more than 100 percent. Idaho’s personal income as a whole grew by about 55 percent during that time. But we sit at 49th nationally. Rasker said he couldn’t answer why Idaho — at 64 percent federal ownership the state with the most federal land among the lower 48 — is so low in personal income. But he provided a few hints. Simply having wilderness, national parks and national monuments won’t have a major impact on a local economy if it is an isolated rural community like St. Maries or Council, his research showed. These communities may have nearby wilderness and national monuments, but they have limited access to good air service, so they don’t show much economic benefit. Midsize communities with good access to air service and broadband Internet are best able to see a benefit, attracting high-wage mobile professionals who can choose where they want to live — to live and work close to where they can hike, fish or ski. Timing also is an issue. Protected areas don’t improve communities’ economic health in recessions, such as we’ve had for much of the past six years. But communities that have a high percentage of college graduates did weather the recession better. Just 25 percent of Idaho high school graduates get a college degree. “When things go bad,” Rasker said, “it really pays to have an educated work force.” Rasker’s research underscores what economists have been saying since the 1980s. Still, many Western political leaders dismiss the value of public lands, wilderness and national monuments. Idaho lawmakers are joining Utah and other Western states in exploring a state takeover of federal lands. Rasker was skeptical the states could cover the fixed costs of providing fire protection and other services on those federal lands that are now financed by taxpayers nationwide. He also doubted that the effort will go anywhere legally. Part of the problem is that people haven’t figured how to communicate the values of public lands the way economic studies demonstrate. Public lands give our region a competitive advantage in the global economy. “The federal public lands are a gift to the West,” Rasker said. “We have wild country, and we have an advanced economy.”

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