California’s national monuments make dollars – and sense, study says

Trees frame Lake Berryessa in this photo taken July 10, 2015, near Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument, Calif.
Trees frame Lake Berryessa in this photo taken July 10, 2015, near Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument, Calif. AP

The national monuments established in California by President Barack Obama benefit the region’s bottom line, according to a new study meant to shape an enduring debate.

While critics worry about presidents locking up public lands, the new study asserts that millions of visitors generate tens of millions of dollars for businesses serving the Obama-designated national monuments, including four in California that were included in the assessment.

“You protect beautiful natural lands (and) historical landmarks, and bring an untapped resource in tourists who would normally not travel to that area,” Sacramento-based consultant Rose Langensiepen told the report’s authors, adding that new income “is now accessible.”

An estimated 3.9 million people visited the 10 areas studied from 2011 to 2015, the report says. Hiking or biking were the most common activities, and 27 percent of the visitors stayed overnight.

Non-local visitors, who analysts reasoned were the most likely to be drawn by an area’s national monument status, spent an estimated $129 million. Local visitors spent an estimated $51 million during the study period, the report adds.

Secondary economic benefits further swell the benefits, analysts noted.

“These national monuments provide a vital economic opportunity for rural communities and small businesses,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Wednesday.

Langensiepen joined Reid, New Mexico Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich and several other business owners in the Capitol on Wednesday morning for the report’s unveiling.

Reid’s home state includes the 704,000-acre Basin and Range National Monument, designated by Obama last year.

National monuments strengthen local and regional economies by attracting a substantial number of visitors each year from outside the local region.

Small Business Majority report

The study, commissioned by a group called Small Business Majority, evaluated the Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument, about 100 miles northwest of Sacramento, as well as Basin and Range and seven other monuments established by Obama.

Other California areas studied ranged from the heavily visited San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, near Los Angeles, to the remote Point Arena-Stornetta addition to the California Coastal National Monument, north of San Francisco. Analysts also folded in the trail-rich Fort Ord National Monument in Monterey County.

The study did not break down data by individual national monuments. Across all monuments, though, lodging accounted for the greatest dollar impact.

The national monuments were designated under presidential powers authorized by the Antiquities Act of 1906. All told, Obama has established 20 national monuments and expanded two others.

Republican presidents, too, have used the 1906 law. Then-President George W. Bush in 2008 designated the island-hopping World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, which encompasses what once was called the Tule Lake War Relocation Center in Northern California.

“This hasn’t been something President Obama dreamed up,” Reid said. “This has been going on for more than 100 years.”

Conservatives, though, have regularly criticized the presidential decrees, warning against everything from executive overreach and a suppression of private property interests to a bloating of federal land holdings.

“I’m not opposed to national monuments,” Rep. Paul Cook, R-Apple Valley, said in February. “I’m opposed to the president creating national monuments through unilateral executive action, ignoring the legislative process.”

Cook’s ire was sparked by Obama’s designating 1.8 million acres in Riverside and San Bernardino counties as three new national monuments.

Democrats respond that the Republican-controlled Congress impedes legislation, including companion bills introduced by Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer and Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, that would add sites in San Luis Obispo and two other counties to the existing California Coastal National Monument.

The areas designated for national monument status already belong to the federal government. Valid existing permits for activities including grazing, mining and oil-and-gas leasing can remain intact.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story wrongly said that Fort Ord is not a national monument. The Fort Ord National Monument was designated in 2012.

Michael Doyle: 202-383-0006, @MichaelDoyle10