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Low Hanging, Long Lasting Economic Fruit on America’s Public Lands | Commentary

Whatever the next Congress brings us, let’s hope it brings a fresh perspective on how to balance the management of our public lands, and a renewed push to actually get things done. The 113th Congress has had one of the worst records in history when it comes to protecting unique landscapes across the West, including stalling bills that would strengthen Arizona’s economy.

According to the National Park Service, visitors to Casa Grande Ruins National Monument and Saguaro National Park spent a combined $41.2 million in 2012, supporting 579 local jobs. Modest and popular proposals to expand these parks have been stalled in Congress for over a year, and for no good reason.

But there are many good reasons to celebrate America’s public lands. They support a diverse economy here in the West, serving many purposes simultaneously. Vast watersheds capture the rain and snowmelt that western farms, ranches and cities need. Mining and energy development provide economic opportunity for rural communities desperate for jobs. Protected open spaces provide wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation opportunities that anchor a quality of life drawing people to the region in droves. This multiplicity of uses is at the core of a deep, fundamental and sustaining economic shift that has been occurring across the West for some time.

I have had the good fortune to study and foster this shift from “both sides,” using the unfortunate construct of today’s conflict-fueled policy arena. I worked for five years for the Sonoran Institute, a nonprofit organization working with communities to promote economic and environmental resiliency. Currently, I am the principal adviser for government affairs for Resolution Copper Mining, LLC, a for-profit joint venture between two of the worlds top mining companies in Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, to develop the Resolution copper mine 65 miles east of Phoenix. From both perches, and for the same reasons, I came to see outdoor recreation as a key driver in workforce development, economic stability and quality of life for my fellow Arizonans.

At Resolution Copper Mining, we are investing in the quality of life of our home community of Superior, Arizona, in ways that are intended to outlast the operations of our mine. Diversifying and investing in local economies is as important as the resource development project itself. We want the community to be better off for having our presence in their lives, and that means we have a responsibility to plan for economic resiliency after the mine’s work is finished. Too many rural communities such as Superior get stuck on the economic roller coaster of boom/bust cycles related to resource extraction.

Helping a community take its economy off that roller coaster ride is no small task, but the benefits of collaboration are clear: the success of our mine relies on a high quality workforce, and highly skilled workers are attracted to communities with a high quality of life. Twenty-first Century mining needs educated, highly skilled workers to operate. Gone are the days of brute force to move tons of rock. Our workers and their families need quality education, access to arts, culture, and libraries. Importantly, we see access to outdoor recreation opportunities as a key ingredient to that quality of life. And we know that public lands are an important foundation for those opportunities. That’s why we have invested in preserving world class rock climbing, developing new trail systems, and work with organizations that focus on outdoor recreation opportunities. Key relationships have been developed with the US Forest Service and within the region to assure the sustainability of these efforts long after the mine is closed.

And it isn’t just rural communities that are home to mining companies that are cluing in to the economic benefits of outdoor recreation. One of the final projects I led at the Sonoran Institute was a qualitative research study with hiring managers and highly skilled workers from some of Arizona’s leading corporations. Our key finding: human resource professionals consider lifestyle nearly as important as pay and cost of living in their recruitment efforts, and outdoor recreation in a natural setting comes in second only to climate, and ahead of urban sports and cultural amenities, among four factors that contribute to lifestyle for highly skilled workers recruited by Arizona companies.

The economics and demographics of the West continue to shift to a more urbanized center of gravity, and that presents both challenges and opportunities for rural, gateway communities like Superior. But the trends and possibilities are clear. Whether we’re talking about congressional action on public land conservation, public/private partnerships, or community investments that a private company like Resolution Copper makes, outdoor recreation is a leading economic driver in today’s American West, and the 114th Congress should remember that when they get to work next year.

Dave Richins is a city council member from Mesa, Arizona, and the principal government affairs advisor for Resolution Copper, LLC.

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