March 2016

Recreation or industry?

By Dexter Gill

I am having a hard time adjusting to how time has changed our way of life and what we find important. Growing up so long ago, I never thought about or even heard about such things as vacations or recreation out in the public lands and forests. The forests and ranges were “working” lands, where timber, livestock, mines all provided jobs and products to enable the businesses to grow the local economy. People worked to put food on the table, clothes on their backs and a roof over their heads. Once a year we did make use of the roads developed by those industries, to access the forests to go hunting or hunt for arrowheads and neat rocks. We didn’t realize that we were “recreating.”

Today those “working” lands are being set aside as lands for leisure recreation, no longer contributing much to building industry and wealth in the economy. Yep, I’m having a hard time understanding all this leisure recreation when we have so many that don’t have jobs to enable them to gain enough wealth to afford to recreate these days.

It is interesting how so many different groups have decided that the purpose of the public lands is for “their” type of recreational use, only theirs. They forget, or likely don’t know, that the public lands, pending disposal, were designated for production of timber, forage and water for the welfare and development of wealth for the people of the state. Non-productive recreational use of the public lands was not even a remote consideration, as everybody was expected to work to produce wealth for their own survival and build the economy of the state as a whole.

Recreation got a big stimulus starting in the late ’50s when buying on credit became a more commonly accepted practice. We could then spend more time and “money” that we didn’t have, playing and having fun, and where better than on the public lands? Today, people pay more for recreational toys than I paid for my first house.

As recreation on public lands increased, the demand came to halt beneficial economic management and use of the lands, as those uses conflicted with the desires of the new recreational and environmental pleasure-seekers. Stop grazing, timbering, mining, and any other economic use, they demanded. Interestingly, the various recreational users are now wishing to restrict or eliminate each other. The hikers, bikers, motorbikers, ATVers, Jeepers and equestrians all seem to have issues with some or all of the others as not being compatible with using the same trails and roads or noise levels. The not-so-amusing part is that very few of them seem to realize that the industries of agriculture, mining, timbering and livestock are what built the roads, trails, ponds, lakes, other access and facilities that enable them to enjoy and recreate on the public lands.

I hear it said that recreation and tourism is the growing industry to sustain Colorado, and the public lands are the key to facilitating that economic growth. To muddy the waters, I would allege that recreation is not an industry, but is in fact a means of “wealth redistribution” and unsustainable as industry wanes, which is now happening across the nation.

Industry is definitive of work, employment, productive enterprises. Recreation is definitive of refreshing the body and mind after work by playing and relaxation. So here we have people that work at a job to produce sufficient wealth enabling them to use some to redistribute to others to help them relax from their work of gaining wealth.

It is pretty clear that recreational businesses are entirely dependent upon productive industry to generate the one new dollar for redistribution. The one new dollar of wealth is now more difficult to create, with 75 percent of the public lands here in Colorado having been set aside from productive economic use, and the remaining 25 percent highly restricted. So, the public lands have a high cost of oversight (there is no management) and attempted protection, which has not been working, and no economic return from the lands to defray those costs.

Before you try to shoot the message-bearer, I do agree that we need to work to maintain and even expand recreational opportunity throughout the area along with the associated businesses. How do we make this happen? Certainly not by restricting and eliminating access and use of any one potential recreational user in preference to another. Nor should we eliminate existing road and trail access that has been used and may be needed for future management, protection, recreation and safety purposes. Start by recognizing that the public lands must be managed for the best overall health and economic production of the land, vegetation and water, for the local area, not the desires of the fickle public. Recreational opportunity is a side benefit derived from good productive management and use of the resources on the public lands, not the primary purpose. The wealth derived from the industry use provides for expansion of the recreation opportunities and businesses.

So, do we want to develop and improve recreation and tourism business opportunity locally? Then develop sound productive industry uses of the forest and range resources that can support the leisure recreation and build its supporting businesses, while recreation is still viable. We can have it all!

Dexter Gill is a retired forest manager who worked for private industry, three Western state forestry agencies, and the Navajo Nation forestry department. He writes from Lewis, Colo.