Celebrating Those Who Help to Conserve our Public Lands

by Damon Runberg

April 10, 2019

On April 22nd we will celebrate Earth Day. I mean a collective “we” as Earth Day is observed across the globe. It is a day celebrating environmental protection, natural resource conservation, and more broadly the concept of peace and unity. In honor of this day, let’s take a look at one of the things we celebrate on Earth Day, the conservation and protection of our public lands.

There is quite a bit of baggage that comes along with the word conservation. However, it is a concept we can all celebrate. At its core, conservation is avoiding the wasteful use of a resource. Many definitions of conservation include a forward looking aspect that emphasizes the protection of resources for future generations. Here in Oregon we have an abundance of natural resources worthy of conserving for future generations to use, experience, and enjoy. Ocean beaches; vast forestlands; cool and clear rivers; mountain peaks; abundant salmon runs; migratory water fowl; clean air; deserts and sage land; quiet places; and open, undeveloped public lands.

Much of the western United States has large swaths of public lands with Oregon being no exception, in fact, Oregon has the fifth largest share of total land in public ownership (60.4%). Over 37 million acres of Oregon are publicly owned and managed by the federal or state government. The vast majority of this land is managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management; these two federal agencies manage 55.5 percent of all land in Oregon. However, we also have national and state parks, state lands, and many smaller parcels managed by local cities, counties, and tribes.

To view a more detailed picture of the public land ownership in Oregon, visit the accompanying map on the U.S. Geological Survey site, maps.usgs.gov/padus.

Our public lands provide numerous economic, social, and environmental benefits. One of the critical environmental benefits is the protection of our drinking water. Many of Oregon’s watersheds are protected within federal and state public lands, ensuring clean and safe water for our consumption. The Bull Run watershed serves nearly a million residents in and around Portland. The 102-square-mile protected watershed is located on the Mt. Hood National Forest and collects rain and snowmelt that is collected in two large reservoirs that serve the greater Portland area.

Our public lands provide critical habitat for wildlife. Large swaths of public land provide space for annual migrations, such as Mule Deer in Central Oregon. This deer species summers in the foothills and mountains of the Deschutes National Forest outside of Bend, then move east onto Bureau of Land Management land in the winter to avoid the deep snow in the mountains. Public land provides for the freedom of movement this species needs to forage.

Our public lands support tourism and the outdoor recreation economy. According to a recent study by the Outdoor Industry Association, public lands across the nation account for $45 billion in economic output annually and support 396,000 jobs. Here in Oregon the outdoor recreation economy directly employs 172,000 Oregonians with total payroll exceeding $5 billion annually. Public lands are the basic infrastructure that the outdoor recreation economy is built upon. Public lands provide lakes and rivers for fishing, game for hunting or wildlife viewing, trails for hiking and biking, OHV areas for motorsports, mountains for skiing, and camping opportunities.

Our public lands support rural Oregonians. A portion of timber-receipts from wood harvested off federal lands finds its way back to local governments to provide funding for schools, protection, and other local government services. These payments have declined over the past several decades as timber harvests on federal lands are far below their historic peaks. In addition to these direct payments from timber harvests, many rural communities in Oregon have a thriving tourism and outdoor recreation economy due to proximity to public lands. Take Joseph, a small town in the far northeastern corner of the state surrounded on three sides by public lands. The highlight is the Eagle Cap Wilderness with more than 350,000 acres in the Wallowa Mountains, as well as Wallowa Lake, which attracts over 500,000 visitors each year. The visitors who stream into Joseph to view these natural vistas help support a thriving art scene, festival culture, and tourism businesses.

Across the state there are roughly 5,300 people employed by federal, state, and local governments who are actively engaged in managing conservation programs for our public lands. Around 54 percent of these are employed by federal agencies, with the largest share in the Bureau of Land Management. Oregon has a high concentration of folks who are actively managing these conservation programs, with the ninth highest location quotient (industry specialization) of all 50 states. As would be expected, the states with the highest concentration of their employment in conservation programs are western states with large tracts of public lands, such as Alaska, Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho.

Conservation activities and education programs are more prevalent in the summer months due to better weather and easier access. As a result, employment in public conservation programs is highly seasonal, with summer employment more than 22 percent higher than employment during the winter months. These opportunities are spread across the entire state of Oregon. Rural communities with a high share of public land have relatively high concentrations of conservation activity, such as Klamath, Lincoln, Douglas, Crook, Coos, and Malheur counties.

If you are interested in a summer job or beginning a new career helping to conserve our public lands, be on the lookout for job openings as agencies begin to ramp up hiring for the summer months. You can search for job openings on QualityInfo.org or check out https://www.usajobs.gov/ for opportunities with federal land management agencies in your area. Next time you run into one of the many hardworking folks helping to conserve our public lands across the state, make sure to thank them. Happy Earth Day!

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