Land, Water and People: Rio Grande National Forest’s impact on the local economy

I grew up in a small town in southern New Hampshire. It was pretty idyllic. My family only owned a one and a half acre lot, but it bordered a large private woodland that my brothers and I often played in. A beautiful little brook full of trout flowed just one quarter mile away and I often supplied the family with fish for dinner. There were about 2000 residents in the county and only one small grocery store in the town center. Businesses and residents from Massachusetts began moving up into southern New Hampshire about the time I finished grade school. It was cheaper to live and run a business in New Hampshire because of the state’s low taxes. In eighth grade, I wrote a paper for class about the subdivision that was constructed in the woodlot behind our house. Then, in my senior year, the first traffic light was put in at an intersection next to town. By the time I graduated from college, the population in the county had risen to 10,000 people, several more traffic lights were installed, and warehouses, small shopping malls and office buildings took over many of the woodlots and corn fields. The local economy boomed and my father’s interior construction business thrived. While there were a lot of jobs available, there was very little public land to roam in – a few state, county and town parks, but nothing very big. The White Mountain and Green Mountain National Forests were two to three hours away and their trail heads were packed on weekends like those on national forests along the Front Range. In contrast, the upper Rio Grande area is rich with public lands, but comparably lacking in employment opportunities, especially high paying jobs. This situation has led to many debates locally about the value of public lands and the need for more development to grow the economy. Economists sometimes try to put a number on the economic importance of public lands to the surrounding communities. The Rio Grande National Forest recently received a jobs and income report for 2015 from our regional office in Lakewood. According to the report, the Forest added about $52 million in labor income and 1,500 full time, part-time and seasonal jobs to the local economy in 2015. The Rio Grande National Forest contributes to the local economies through recreation, timber, minerals and livestock grazing. In addition, counties with national forest land within them receive funds to support schools, road maintenance and stewardship projects. It is fairly easy to link some jobs directly to the national forest. There is direct employment of 90 permanent employees and 40 temporary employees. There are also direct links to ranchers who graze their cattle and sheep on the Forest; logging and sawmills that use trees from the Forest; employees working at Wolf Creek Ski Area (which mostly sits in the Forest); and outfitters and guides who takes customers onto the Forest for a fee. The report also considers the economic impact of people visiting the Forest who then spend money in local shops, grocery stores, restaurants, guest ranches, hotels, commercial campgrounds and even our hospitals. I’m not sure if the report considers the employment of builders and realtors linked to the second homes constructed and sold in our area by people attracted to living part time near the Forest. Possibly the most important impact of the Rio Grande National Forest is linked to how the mountains wring out moisture from the dry western air providing water for trees, meadows, wildlife, agriculture and our faucets. I’ve lived and worked in this area for 40 years now and I’ve always known that I could make more money in a more developed area. But, I have no regrets as I have been able to live a rural lifestyle among wonderful people in a place that hundreds of thousands of other people go out of their way to visit for their vacation. Mike Blakeman is the public affairs officer for the Rio Grande National Forest. He spends much of his free time scrambling around the mountains with a camera in his hand.


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