Land use, property rights, and protection and use of natural resources are issues of great importance to the Federal lands counties counties in which 30 percent or more of the land is owned by the Federal Government. In 1987, there were 270 such counties, located primarily in the West. The amount of federally owned acreage in these counties ranged from 30 to 99 percent.
Because the Federal Government owns much of the land, these counties are significantly affected by Federal policies and regulations dealing with land, the environment, tourism, and recreational activities. The debate on such policies and regulations is often couched in terms of economic development versus environmental protection. In reality, the debate is primarily about who has the right to use and benefit from Federal lands, how those lands can be used, and who pays for those benefits. A wide range of people and activities compete for that right. Ranchers, miners, loggers, recreational users, and those concerned with the preservation of wilderness all have a stake in the governance of Federal lands. And as the West grows, its population changes, and the demand on its natural resources increases, the level of debate will likely rise, often pitting recent urban emigres against long-time local residents.
Concentrated in the West, Federal lands counties are affected by policies on land and resource use:
Economically, Federal lands counties fared slightly better as a group than other nonmetro counties in the 1980s. Median family income was higher than the nonmetro figure, although still well below metro levels, and the average poverty rate (15.8 percent) was the lowest of all county types.
Job growth in these counties was also strong. The average growth rate in services jobs in Federal lands counties outpaced even the average total job growth rate in metro areas, and the overall job growth rate in these counties was faster than the nonmetro rate. However, earnings per job declined over the decade by nearly 11 percent, significantly more than the 6.5-percent decline for nonmetro counties as a group.
Nearly 70 percent of jobs in the average Federal lands county were in the services or government sectors (hence the fact that 60 Federal lands counties were also services counties). Of the 554,000 new jobs created in these counties, 429,000 (77 percent) were in the services sector.
The success of the services sector in these counties is, in part, associated with the growth in tourism and recreation that these areas have experienced. As the American public becomes increasingly mobile and recreation-minded, the demand for services in these counties increases. The accompanying jobs range from seasonal jobs serving tourists to full-time government land managers. Thus the pay scale varies widely also.
Population also grew in these counties, significantly outpacing the nonmetro average (9 percent versus 0.6 percent). This population growth was due in part to tourism and retiree attraction (58 Federal lands counties 22 percent are also retirement-destination counties). Reflecting the overlap with the retirement counties, the number of people age 65 and over grew by 33 percent. The number of working age people also grew.
Population density in these counties is low, averaging only 15.4 persons per square mile. This fact is not surprising given the relative lack of development and small populations in the large western counties. Only farming counties, with 11.8 persons, had lower average density. This does not mean, however, that population is spread evenly and thinly across the counties. About 14 percent of the counties had towns and cities of 20,000 to 50,000 people.
The issues facing Federal lands counties are inseparably intertwined with Federal policies and regulations regarding the use of those lands. The degree to which particular groups of people benefit from growth in these counties depends, in part, on their relationship to the natural resource base and how those relationships are affected by policies and regulations. However, as the income and job situation suggests, these counties are, in the aggregate, doing well, even while some in the counties are not.