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The Economy of Wild Spaces By: David Torem and Nicole Pasi

Nicole Pasi, the Kittitas Program Senior Manager at the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust (MSGT), is passionate about wild spaces and knows a thing or two about the value they bring to our local economy. The Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust is a coalition-based organization that leads and inspires action to conserve and enhance the special landscape between Seattle and Ellensburg, ensuring a long-term balance between people and nature. They work towards these goals by advocating for public lands at the state and federal level, conducting community outreach and engagement with public lands and environmental tourism, and providing volunteer and outdoor education opportunities. They’ve operated for more than 30 years, and were designated a National Heritage Area in 2019, which provides a tool through which the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust and its many local partners can preserve the natural landscapes and ecosystems that define the region’s character, while recognizing the cultural and historic significance of these lands and its people—past, present, and future.

As part of their efforts, MSGT lobbies lawmakers to support certain budget items to preserve the environment and public lands. But what does that look like? Agencies like the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) cannot advocate for their own budget to the state legislature, so the Trust lobbies for them. Part of Nicole’s job is to gather citizen groups, talk to individual lawmakers, and coordinate with nonprofits in efforts to support key legislation. This year, that support resulted in successes like $5.7 million to support community forest programming statewide, and $1.6 million for WDFW to restore public lands after wildfires. 

Although our public lands require funding to maintain, they also generate significant value. The WA State Recreation and Conservation Office conducts a study every 5 years on the economic value of Washington lands using the metrics of consumer spending. They look at how recreation and conservation contribute to the overall economy, broken down by county. In 2015, consumers spent $185 million on outdoor recreation in Kittitas County, which generated $118 million overall in economic contributions to the state. In 2020 that figure grew to $217 million in consumer spending in Kittitas County alone and $305 million in Kittitas County’s contribution to Washington’s state economy. Statewide, consumers spent $21.6 billion on outdoor recreation in 2020, which grew 22% to $26.5 billion in 2020. The overall economic impact to the state, however, grew from $20.5 billion in 2015 to $40 billion in 2020 - in just five years, the amount spent in Washington on playing in the outdoors doubled!

However, the Kittitas County government does not see all of this money directly. Outdoor tourism here generated about $6 million in state tax dollars and about $3 million in county tax dollars in 2015. In 2020, that number grew to $16 million, $14 million of which were generated by county businesses. While an improvement, those tax dollars are not enough to offset the cost of road maintenance, sanitation, and emergency services responses created by nonresidents recreating within the county itself. How can a rural county like Kittitas capitalize on its natural beauty to preserve the very resource that attracts people to play here?

The MSGT recognized that no single source of funding could cover the costs of maintaining trails and natural resources to create truly sustainable recreation. Rather than proposing an additional tax, they worked with local businesses to launch the Kittitas Stewardship Fund, where businesses that rely on outdoor tourism offer their customers a voluntary donation option at the time of checkout. Some participating businesses ask if customers would like to round up to the nearest dollar, while others offer a 1% pre-tax purchase donation. These micro-donations are then collected by the Chamber of Commerce, and dispensed as grants to local environmental, recreational, and educational projects. 

The Kittitas Stewardship Fund raised $20,000 in its first year (2022), which it granted out in 2023. KEEN received one of the first grants in 2023, which supported work to improve habitat and summer camp infrastructure at the Yakima Canyon Interpretive Center. The Washington Outdoor School also received funding to place environmental educators in schools in the Roslyn/Cle Elum school district through their Mobile Explorer Partner program. The Department of Fish and Wildlife used the funding to do a cultural resource assessment to improve trails. A local winter recreation club used money to buy tools to do winter storm trail maintenance. All this money raised from just an opt-in 1% donation! Other communities have succeeded with this strategy too. Lake Tahoe raised one hundred thousand dollars, for example, and communities in other states have raised twenty to one hundred thousand dollars annually. 

Of course, outdoor spaces and natural resources are worth more than just what we are willing to spend on them. This value is often summarized as ‘ecosystem services’, or the benefits we derive from things like drinkable water, breathable air, pollinated crops, and natural flood controls. Ecosystem services also benefit our mental health, spiritual and cultural practices, and pure aesthetic beauty. When wild spaces are degraded through poor management, climate change, or catastrophe, we lose those ‘services’. The cost of replacing them manually is not well understood yet, but estimated to be at least in the billions, annually, for Washington state alone. 

Our natural environment is beautiful and essential for our survival, but is also lucrative for our economy if managed well and for everyone’s benefit. When managed poorly, the costs are literally incalculable by modern economics. We’re lucky to live in a state that acknowledges the importance of this, but it still takes the efforts of communities, local governments, and organizations like the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust to creatively fund the upkeep of our natural spaces. If you’ve been opting in to that 1% donation, thank you. If not, try it. It’s only cents on a dollar with a huge return on investment. 

Visit MTSG’s educational booth at Get Intimate with the Shrub-Steppe on Saturday May 11 between 9am and 1pm. Free and open to all, join us at the Yakima Canyon Interpretive Center. You can find more details here:


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