Mark Udall: Our enduring economic driver

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From the Western Slope to the San Luis Valley to the Eastern Plains, Colorado has been blessed with some of the most spectacular natural resources in the country. For many of us, the outdoors is why we have chosen to live and do business in Colorado. It is one of the ways we define ourselves.

This past weekend we celebrated Great Outdoors Day. It is fitting that we would take the occasion to appreciate the natural wonders of our state. It also is an opportunity to recognize that our natural assets are growing our economy.

A new study from the Montana-based thinktank Headwaters Economics points to the increasing diversity of Colorado’s economy. From 2000 to 2010, Headwaters reports, Colorado’s economy created 228,893 new jobs, with the great majority of this growth coming from service-related industries. While maintaining jobs in traditional industries like oil and gas development, our fastest-growing sectors now include health care, finance and professional services such as architects.

Moreover, in 2010, Colorado was ranked a top state for entrepreneurship, creating 450 new businesses per month for every 100,000 adults — outpacing the country as a whole, which created 340 new businesses per month for every 100,000 adults.

Economists are saying that this growth isn’t happening just because of Colorado’s business-friendly tax or regulatory policies, but in part because of the quality of life inherent in our great outdoors.

Traditionally, protecting our natural resources has been thought to bolster Colorado’s tourism industry, supporting jobs in hotels, restaurants, guide businesses and others. Indeed, activities like hiking, skiing, shooting and angling contribute more than $10 billion per year to our economy, supporting more than 100,000 Colorado jobs and generating $500 million in state tax revenue. But now, economists like Daphne Greenwood, of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, are saying that Colorado’s prosperity depends on protecting our natural resources: “Protected public lands play an important role by providing recreational opportunities, wildlife habitat, and amenities that attract and keep creative people in Colorado.”

As Colorado’s Tourism Office Director Al White told a meeting of business leaders in Denver last month, people visit our state first as tourists, but they return as CEOs, setting up their businesses here and hiring talented Coloradans.

We need to keep this economic engine humming. That is why I am working with President Barack Obama and my colleagues in Congress to ensure that America’s all-the-above energy policy includes balanced protections for public lands here in Colorado and across the country.

Already, Coloradans strongly support an energy policy that promotes development of various energy sources, including natural gas and our abundant solar and wind resources. According to a recent poll, 55 percent of Colorado small-business owners want to see that policy formally expanded to include protections for public lands, which they see as key to their economic growth.

I am the proud sponsor of the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act, a common-sense proposal that will promote that outdoor heritage economy in southwest Colorado for generations to come. I also would welcome all Coloradans to comment in the local collaborative processes we are conducting. Your comments will help us draft public lands protection legislation in the central mountains and national monument legislation for Browns Canyon in the Arkansas River Valley — an economic booster and sportsmen and river recreationist’s dream.

Places like these are not just for weekend enjoyment. Our landscapes and waterways represent a covenant with future generations. Our national parks, monuments and wilderness areas are not gifts we inherited from our parents — they are national treasures we are borrowing from our children and future generations. They also are Colorado’s most reliable, enduring economic drivers. Taking smart steps to preserve Colorado’s natural assets, including establishing national parks and monuments and pursuing energy policies that include provisions to protect public lands is just good business.

Mark Udall is the senior senator for the state of Colorado. He serves on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and is chairman of the Subcommittee on National Parks.

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