With his jobs bill stalled in Congress, President Obama has hit the road on his "We Can’t Wait" campaign, a series of executive actions like setting fuel-efficiency standards and reducing the burden of student loans to spur economic growth.
But if expansion of jobs is the goal, a group of prominent economists is wondering why the president hasn’t done more to protect public lands and monuments, which can be a boon to local communities. In a letter obtained by The Daily Beast, nearly 100 prominent economists, including Nobel Prize winners Joseph Stiglitz, Kenneth Arrow, and Robert Solow, called on Obama to use his powers to set aside more public land, suggesting that new national parks and monuments can be one of the quickest ways to spur local hiring and build productive communities.
“Together with investment in education and access to markets, studies have repeatedly shown that protected public lands are significant contributors to economic growth,” the economists wrote. “We urge you to create jobs and support businesses by investing in our public lands infrastructure and establishing new protected areas such as parks, wilderness and monuments.”
Protection of public land usually falls to the Departments of Agriculture and the Interior, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency, which have undertaken projects under Obama to conserve thousands of acres of mid-Atlantic farmland and expand access to public trails.
Yet one of the more immediate avenues for creating new national parks is the federal Antiquities Act, a 1906 law granting the president unilateral authority to designate and shape areas to be patrolled by the National Park Service. Since the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, the law’s founder, every president except three—Nixon, Reagan, and Bush 41—has used it at least once.
White House officials cite the intense deliberation process to create a new national park or monument. When Obama used the Antiquities Act on Nov. 1 to designate a new federal monument at Fort Monroe, Va., it was only after months of discussions internally and with local officials. The effort has produced impressive economic yields: a regional study from the Fort Monroe Authority estimated that the monument’s construction and preservation would create 3,000 new jobs.
The economists who signed the letter have some ideas for other areas: the Boulder White Cloud Mountains in central Idaho and parts of Montana and South Dakota.
Ray Rasker, executive director of the nonpartisan think tank Headwaters Economics, said several studies have shown that scenic areas with access to outdoor activities like fishing, hiking, and boating attract new companies that want to provide new areas for their employees to live and work.
“You have to understand, the role of protected public lands goes far beyond just attracting tourists,” said Rasker. “It really has become a magnet that attracts business and entrepreneurship.”
There’s a reason the economists believe Obama may be the only person for the job. Bills outlining wilderness designation usually fall flat in Congress. Despite several tries, a bill to protect the Boulder White Clouds hasn’t made it past both chambers. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) has been trying to get the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act passed since 1993. The bill would protect more than 9 million acres in five states along the Rockies. Members of Congress from the region, however, have accused Maloney of trying to overreach on land she doesn’t represent.
Responding to the contents of the letter, Clark Stevens, a White House spokesman, noted that Obama, shortly after taking office, designated more than 2 million acres of wilderness and 1,100 miles of wild and scenic rivers. "We believe conservation initiatives work best when they build on local efforts and have the support of the people who are most directly affected,” he said.