On September 21 Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack made a compelling case for the conservation economy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund-hosted discussion, “America’s Great Outdoors: Creating Jobs by Conserving Public Lands and Working Lands.”
Highlighting many of the recommendations in “The Jobs Case for Conservation,” a new report by the Center for American Progress also released on Wednesday, Vilsack argued that a focus on public and working land conservation creates and maintains large quantities of jobs in sectors such as recreation, management, and renewable energy.
Vilsack mentioned one estimate that approximated the recreation industry had a $730 billion impact on the economy. The secretary explained that national forests and conservation land bring people from all over to partake in hunting, fishing, hiking, biking, and numerous other activities, and that influx of tourism can do wonders for small and local businesses, from retail to hospitality to local guides to park maintenance.
“If there’s the possibility for a good experience, they will stay at a motel, they will eat at a local restaurant, they’ll go to the local hardware store, they’ll buy their hunting license, they’ll also buy shotgun shells, they may buy snacks … they may buy clothing because they didn’t pack right,” Vilsack said. “All of that helps stimulate retail activity and tourism dollars.”
CAP’s report estimated that recreation and tourism on Department of the Interior and Forest Service land creates at least 500,000 jobs, and that the protection of public lands is needed to ensure these jobs continue and more can be added. Additionally, Vilsack noted, the focus on getting Americans outside and active increases the overall health of the nation, and combats obesity, all of which can help drive down health care costs.
Vilsack further explained that with increased maintenance and preservation of lands, the country will create feedstock for biorefineries that can be converted into fuel. Under laws passed in 2005 and 2007, the nation is required to create 36 billion gallons of biofuel by 2022, and Vilsack noted the potentially enormous job growth in this sector.
“When we build these biorefineries and we employ people to run them, and we employ people to essentially harvest the biomass, you’re talking about up to a million jobs,” the secretary explained.
Vilsack mentioned some of the other renewable energy sources that can be produced on public lands, too, such as solar-, hydro-, and geothermal, emphasizing the report’s recommendation to get these energy projects off the ground.
The conservation economy also provides another crucial benefit emphasized by both Vilsack and the CAP report: boosting rural communities. Vilsack explained there is no way to outsource these types of jobs, and by nature, they must occur in the rural communities where our public land is.
This is important because the recent economic downturn hit these communities particularly hard. Rural areas, which make up 16 percent of the population, felt the effects of that downturn earlier than most of the country and many maintain higher unemployment and poverty rates than the national average.
“We’re trying to make sure that the rest of the country appreciates what folks in rural America do for them,” Vilsack said. “Most natural resources we tend to enjoy on the weekends are located in rural communities and most of them are maintained by, restored by, protected by, preserved by, and conserved by folks who live in rural areas.”
CAP’s report also highlighted the obvious but important aspect of the conservation economy: the actual conservation of these public lands. The report reiterated the need to protect wildlife and ecosystems and also maintain strong resources for our conservation systems. In all, the report included 15 policies that should be considered in order to promote the conservation economy.
CAP Distinguished Senior Fellow Carol Browner, who was the Obama administration’s energy czar, as well as the EPA administrator under President Bill Clinton, moderated the discussion. She lamented the fact that we are once again under the belief that we must choose between a healthy economy and a healthy environment, and not looking for ways that harmonize the two.
“What people who work in this field know is that one begets the other and there’s not a choice. And if we don’t think about both, it’ll be a very shortsighted solution,” Browner said.