By Scott Jones, Esq.
Economic contribution analysis in federal planning is a two step process which first involves the development of accurate economic contribution analysis research for recreation and secondly requires application of this information in the planning process. Development of accurate information regarding the economic contributions from our sports is a very important first step. Completion of both steps of the process is the only way that economic contribution information can effectively be used to save our sport and the necessity of both steps in the planning process has become readily apparent in planning efforts in Colorado. The motorized community and many other recreational interests in Colorado have been at the forefront of developing accurate economic contribution reports for their chosen activity to insure a proper incorporation of recreation in the planning process for federal lands in Colorado. These user group studies are directly supplemented by multiple works from the State of Colorado, US Forest Service and the Western Governors Association all reach similar conclusions.
The importance of these economic contribution reports cannot be understated, as economic contributions from recreation are the primary manner that recreation is addressed and balanced with other uses in the federal planning process. As a result of this importance, the conclusions of this research are presented in a wide range of conclusions including total spending, total jobs, total tax revenue, and total per day user spending. Often these conclusions are broken down to a regional or even county level in the analysis and surprisingly the findings of all this research is pretty consistent regardless of the source of the information.
While the recreational community of Colorado has done an outstanding job of developing economic contribution information as the first step of the process, application of this information has been a bit more problematic recently. Concerns about accurate application of this information was specifically identified in the recent Western Governors economic contribution study regarding recreational activity on public lands. These concerns recently hit home in my analysis of four new BLM Resource Management Plans in Colorado, as these BLM plans reach conclusions that are completely irreconcilable with any other works that have been created to address recreational spending, despite numerous economic contribution reports being submitted to the Field Office as part of the comment process. Given the vast amount of high quality research that is available, we need to insure these resources are applied in planning, and the critical importance of the second step of the process is something we should never forget.
A few examples of how inaccurate the economic analysis provided in these three BLM plans really is will provide an immediate basis for why this article is necessary. Simply creating good analysis is not sufficient and the comparisons are shocking to say the least. The recent Grand Junction Plan found that recreational usage of the million plus acres in the field office accounted for only $7.2 million dollars in total revenue annually. By comparison, user group research put this amount in the $130-140 million per year in the Grand Junction area and this research estimates that recreational spending provides more tax revenue to local communities than BLM estimated to be spent on all recreation. It is a little hard to reconcile these totals or to assert that recreational usage got a fair shake in the plan with those types of differences.
A primary measure of economic contribution frequently reported is how much a recreational user spends on average per day. While this number will vary somewhat due to intensity or types of uses, it should be a relatively consistent average between offices. Areas with a high level of Wilderness will probably have a lower average spend than an area that sees a lot of motorized recreation. The major factor that will impact total spending in any area would be the number of visitors to the area, not the amount that each user spends. The US Forest Service recently concluded that in Colorado the average recreational visitor spends about $62 per day and previous research indicated that many users, such as the motorized community, spend 2-3 times this amount per day again making the conclusions consistent with user group research. By comparison, the three BLM plans put the average recreational user spend at $10-15 per day. Find it hard to believe that stepping across an arbitrary management line between agencies can result in this type of a difference.? Most managers outside these BLM offices do.
The FO level analysis of recreational spending further conflicts with BLM analysis of recreational spending in species specific planning, mainly the Greater Sage Grouse, that has occurred at the same in these planning areas in Colorado. In Greater Sage Grouse analysis, conclusions of $121.96 were reached for an average recreational spending amount. While these totals may be a little low, they are at least in the realm of possibility. We are simply unable to explain how the same offices could reach such inconsistent conclusions in addressing the same usage in the same areas.
The problematic levels of average daily spending conclusions applied in these BLM RMP is further exemplified when these totals are compared to most user experiences with recreational spending. I am not aware of any activity that I can participate in all day for $10-15 per day. The last spark plug I bought was around $10 and the last snowmobile belt I bought was around $140. Applying the IRS mileage rates for a vehicle being used to access recreational opportunities on public lands results in the ability to total travel of less than 20 miles if spent nothing the rest of the day. Again, this simply makes no sense and strongly indicates there is something wrong.
Another common measure of economic contributions is identifying the number of people employed in recreation positions in the planning area. While Grand Junction is again used as the example, the three other plans suffer from the same inconsistencies of analysis. According to the Grand Junction Plan, 90 people are employed in recreational occupations in the planning area. Comparisons again yield some startling inconsistencies. State and user group analysis put these totals in the 1,400 to 2,100 range for employment as a result of a single type of recreation for the planning area. Comparisons with several local employers results in serious questions regarding the number of employees identified in the Grand Junction plan. Cabela’s in Grand Junction employs 200 people, the Field Office employs about 50 people and numerous motorcycle and atv shops in the Grand Junction area, of which there are dozens, employ 30-50 people. Wonder how the BLM came up with numbers that are so completely inconsistent with any other research and easily accessible information?
There is a moral to this rather frustrating article, and that is the next time you see any form of economic analysis of recreation that simply does not make sense, it is entirely possible that you are correct. Agencies get it wrong and we should not hesitate to call this to their attention in the planning process, and to keep complaining until they get it right. Economics are the only way recreational interests are balanced with other uses in the planning process. If plan says our value is 10 or 15% of the real value, I can assure you we will lose trails, which is unacceptable to me since all the research on these issues is consistent and in our favor.