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New West Daily Roundup for Dec. 1, 2016

Today in New West news: outdoor recreation to factor into U.S. GDP through new bill and new research questions effectiveness of “baitingmountain pine beetles.

The outdoor recreation industry is one of the largest providers of income and drivers of growth in the Rocky Mountain West, bolstered (in no small part) by the wide swaths of public lands spread across multiple states and a bevy of national parks and forests. Indeed, said recreation industry is very vocal about both its market share and threats to it.

Curiously, however, up until now, the outdoor recreation industry (comprising gear makers, retailers, and “providers”) has not been considered part of the United States’ gross domestic product—a glaring omission advocates have sought to reverse for years. Now, according to the Denver Post, that reverse has arrived:

In a moment of rare solidarity, the U.S. Senate on Tuesday unanimously approved a bill that will include the economic impact of the outdoor industry in the federal government’s annual tally of the gross domestic product.

More than a year after the bill was presented by co-sponsor Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican, and two weeks after flying through the U.S. House with unanimous support, the Outdoor Recreation Jobs and Economic Impact Act is headed to the desk of President Barack Obama, who is expected to sign the bill into law by the end of the year.

“This is a big, big deal for us because it takes us off the kids’ table and puts us at the adult table. Now we can show how much we influence the national economy. Christmas came early for the outdoor industry,” said Luis Benitez, the indefatigable head of Colorado’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, who earlier this year gave a speech titled “The Outdoor Recreation Industry Will Save the World.”

The law is expected to elevate recreation as a viable economic engine on public lands alongside stalwart industries such as agriculture, mining and timber. The annual inclusion of recreation’s national economic impact will help guide federal agencies’ budget and investment decisions involving public lands.

Outdoor-industry advocates for decades have repeated stand-alone anecdotes supporting the economic and social benefits of recreation and the businesses that fuel outdoor play. They pointed to how outdoor activities contribute to health and wellness; how sustainable recreation helps preserve treasured public lands; how makers of outdoor gear play outsized roles in rural economies; and how an area’s thriving outdoor lifestyle attracts employers. Mining and timber, on the other hand, had concrete federal statistics proving their worth.

Now, outdoor industry leaders will have hard numbers to back up their business. The math is expected to show that recreation is a vital pillar to a strong economy.

The Post notes the tabulation involved will be quite complicated, with Ray Rasker—executive director of Montana-based nonpartican research group Headwaters Economics—noting that “it’s headache-inducing just thinking about it.” Nonetheless, Rasker believes they can pin down some sureties by turning to the agencies who stand to gain much by having outdoor recreation be a credible, measurable factor of America’s GDP—the U.S. Department of the Interior, Forest Service, National Park Service, and Army Corps of Engineers, among others.

Among other things, the bill’s passage reflects a growing consensus of recreation’s importance to the U.S. economy, per the Post:

Recreation leaders hailed their recent bipartisan support as the dawning of a new age for recreation. With hard economic statistics, there’s hope for more recreation wins — including the passage of Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden’s Recreation Not Red Tape Bill, which would allow individual national forests to retain rents and fees collected inside their boundaries, delivering a boost to Colorado’s most heavily trafficked public lands.

“I think the environment on the hill is supportive of outdoor recreation and now that we have a government study in the works, it is likely there will be more data-driven support for outdoor recreation in the future,” said Jessica Wahl, the Outdoor Industry Association’s Washington, D.C.-based head of government affairs. “Looking at recreation legislation through a job-stimulator or economic-engine lens will certainly help make the case for some of our priorities. And I think the makeup of the next Congress will set us up for a recreation-type package that would hopefully include bills like Wyden’s Recreation Not Red Tape.”

Keeping with outdoor news, new research from the University of British Columbia–Okanagan is raising serious concerns over a common mountain pine beetle management practice. According to a UBC press release, “baiting”—lacing pines with beetle pheromone and then chopping down affected trees in wintertime to remove larvae from the ecosystem, long believed to effectively curb beetle outbreaks—isn’t working as intended.

Ideally, according to associate UBC professor of mathematics Rebecca Tyson, baiting would result in a huge dent in beetle populations, but that effect is blunted by the current preponderance of beetles. From the UBC press release:

Under normal population control circumstances, when a tree is baited with pheromone, it is cut down in winter when the larvae are trapped inside, explains Tyson. Crews also search for other trees near the baited one, and all trees identified to contain beetles are removed.

“If all goes well,” says Tyson “the beetle population is so severely reduced that it dies out.”

However, her modelling indicates that pheromone baiting is not working precisely the way it was expected.

“From the field work done in Banff [National Park], we know that baiting didn’t stop the beetle epidemic,” says Tyson. “Baiting may have slowed it down, but it did not stop it.”

Tyson explains that when the beetle population is low, the beetles actually have a hard time finding each other in the first place. Additional pheromone, placed by humans, help those beetles find each other and attack a tree—the baited one.

“With pheromone baiting this means that humans have put strong signals in the forest that help the beetles find each other. They can then collect in sufficient numbers to attack a tree,” she explains. “In these situations, baiting is making things worse for the trees.”

Tyson noted that factors related to climate change, including warmer winters and severer drought conditions, have contributed to recent beetle outbreaks, a view recently corroborated by a study from the University of Idaho. Tyson also noted that other beetle management practices—such as prescribed burning and clear-cutting—can prove as detrimental to forest landscapes as beetle outbreaks. Going ahead, Tyson called for more simulation modeling.

In states like Montana and Wyoming, deforestation cause by pine beetles is a serious problem, prompting concerted reforestation efforts in places like Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest.

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