Friday, April 09, 1999

Y2Y - The Beginnings

Protecting wildlands pays off
by Richard MostynNews senior reporter
Contrary to popular belief, preserving wilderness in the Rockies makes economic sense, says Ray Rasker.

In fact, it makes more sense than logging it, mining it or farming it.

Now, there are folks who will sneer at Rasker's assertion. They'll dismiss it as the pipe dreams of another environmental ideologue.

They'll call it bunk.

However, there's one small problem with that. Rasker is a resource economist. He holds a doctorate, and he's done a lot of research.

He's part of the Arizona-based Sonoron Institute, a conservation group that will work to help communities protect wild spaces.

But it will only help out if invited. And only if the centre can demonstrate broad community support at the table, he told about 100 people during a slide show at the High Country Inn on Thursday night.

His institute has been pretty successful.
And now it is working on the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, popularly known as Y2Y.

That project was dreamed up by lawyer Harvey Locke and a knot of 20 other conservationists in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, in 1997.

The goal is to create a chain of green space - not parks, but a dedicated wildlife corridor - between the northern Yukon and Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park.

Development can occur in these places, but it can't obstruct animal or bird migration routes south. Or that's the suggestion.

The hope is that wild critters from the Yukon will use this path to replenish the diminished wildlife populations in the south, improving their lives and ours.

Opponents of Y2Y have accused environmentalists of wanting to protect animals and plants at the expense of jobs.

Not so, says Rasker.

And if Locke is Y2Y's chief architect, Rasker is the carpenter who's going to nail the thing down.
His hammer is money.

The argument, stripped to its bare bones, goes like this: If you have an airport and a beautiful location, and can protect it, small business will be lured there and your economy will prosper.
Traditional economic models portray the economy as a three-legged chair held up by mining, logging or agriculture, said Rasker.

Lose one of those legs and the only alternative to prop up the stool is tourism, or so goes the theory, he said.

Except, it doesn't hold.

The economic models Rasker has drafted in the region around Yellowstone National Park, which sports about 130,000 people, shatters those theories.

Almost all growth has nothing to do with mining, logging, agriculture or tourism, he said.
In his report, The New Challenge: People, Commerce and the Environment in the Yellowstone to Yukon Region, he made a startling discovery: In the US portion of the Y2Y region, 46 per cent of the industrial growth has come from non-labor income sources.

That is, sit-on-your-duff money earned from retirement income or investments. In 1995 in that region, such non-labor income amounted to $13.8 billion (US).

By comparison, agriculture amounted to only $691 million and mining, oil and gas and the forest industry combined only totalled $1.1 billion.

In Alberta, he added, the fastest growing sector is services.

Between 1986 and 1991, more than 65,000 new jobs were created. Wholesale and retail trade grew by 11,940 jobs and construction added 6,900.

Primary industry in Alberta - logging, agriculture, oil and gas - grew by only half a per cent over the same period, adding just 320 jobs.

A similar trend was seen in B.C.

These economies are clearly driven by something other than resource industries alone, concluded Rasker.

In short, people are moving to the Rockies as a lifestyle choice. Life there is beautiful, slower and safer.

The supporting studies back that up.

In questioning people and business leaders why they are living in these smaller centres, the majority cited the scenic beauty, that it was a good place to raise a family, the small-town atmosphere, the wildlife and the low crime rates.

The last three reasons were proximity to universities, the cost of business and the tax rates.
They ranked, but far below the other values, said Rasker.

"Wilderness areas are growing six times faster than other places. It's a proven economic development strategy. Protect the quality and business will come."

You won't know what business you'll get. It may be a consultant, a small computer firm or a toothpick maker, but they'll come.

However, you need an airport with regularly scheduled flights and a nice environment.
These people will live and do business in your town, but they still have to be connected to the outside world, he said.

"Take the airport away, and the model collapses. Put it back, and it works."
But the idea is gaining support.

He cited a number of US examples where towns opposed larger development projects in their regions because they threatened wilderness.

And business is starting to get the picture. Opposition was mounted by the chambers of commerce, not environmentalists, he said.

In fact, in some regions conservative people in three-piece suits are starting to discuss biodiversity.

"We now consider grizzlies and swans economic assets."

However, it's a good news, bad news scenario.

People are moving out of the cities to these smaller regions for the improved quality of life.
However, as that happens, the smaller towns get crowded and start to experience the same problems as the larger cities, he admitted.

"There are no easy answers."

But he had some suggestions.

First, tap into the growth and use it to expand the wilderness that is drawing people to the town.
Traditionally, the tax base is focused on industry. When an industry collapses, the tax base goes with it.

Even though smaller business may move in, most towns don't recoup the lost industrial tax revenue.

The answer may be a sales tax, or some other tax measure to help raise money from the population at large, he suggested.

That money can then be funneled into protecting the environment.

Second, you have to prevent urban sprawl. And to do that you have to make towns livable.
Good schools to encourage people to live in town, parks, bike paths, ski and hiking trails into the bush will all help keep people in town.

For example, in Bozeman, Montana, there's Three-mile Trail, which begins on Main Street and then rises into the mountains. People can grab a coffee and then go for a hike in the bush.
Rasker saw a grizzly there, an almost legendary experience in the Lower 48. He mentioned it at least three times.

Government shouldn't try to attract business or micromanage the economy, he said.
Instead, it should work to build good schools, a telecommunications infrastructure and an attractive setting, while keeping taxes moderate.

"Business will be creative, and more often than not, it will be by people in the community."