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The Golden Rush: How Public Lands Draw Retirees and Create Economic Growth

DENVER – A new Center for Western Priorities report released this morning finds that seniors are three times more likely to move into Western counties with a higher percentage of protected public lands like national parks, monuments, and other conservation areas.

The Golden Rush: How Public Lands Draw Retirees and Create Economic Growth examines census data, migration trends, economic indicators, and the distribution of protected public lands to help determine which factors drive retirees to the West.

“Every week an estimated 70,000 baby boomers reach retirement age,” said Greg Zimmerman, policy director at the Center for Western Priorities. “Communities that want to attract boomers entering their golden years and the job creation and spending power that they bring with them are wise to support efforts that protect our national public lands.”

The economic benefits of retirees ripple across local communities. Non-labor income, in the form of investment income and aging-related payments, is one of the fastest-growing sources of income in the Western U.S. With this spending power, recent retirees moving to Western states are bringing thousands of jobs with them – an estimated 297,000 jobs over ten years – in industries like health services, construction, housing, banking, restaurants and entertainment.

A recent Colorado College poll found seniors in six Western states listed “clean air, clean water and environment,” a “healthy, outdoor lifestyle,” and the “ability to live near, recreate on and enjoy public lands like national parks and forests,” as their top three reasons to live in the West, outpacing other traditional retiree concerns like cost of living and access to healthcare and hospitals.

“The great access to the protected public lands of the valley was a main reason my wife and I moved to Grand Junction three years ago,” said Bob Noble, President of the Grand Junction Newcomers Association. “Outdoor recreational opportunities are a big part of what makes this place special.  We love living in this community with camping, hiking, skiing and more, all at our backdoor.”

The report includes case studies from four Western towns with burgeoning retirement communities: Grand Junction, Colorado; Las Cruces, New Mexico; St. George, Utah; and Boise, Idaho.

“We know how important maintaining an active lifestyle is for seniors who are moving to St. George,” said Terri Kane, Southwest Region Vice President for Intermountain Healthcare in St. George, Utah.  “Not only are we committed to providing top-notch treatment and diagnostic services to all our clients, we have activities and lectures to help our older clients enjoy the great outdoors for years to come.”

In order to continue attracting retiring seniors, the report recommends that cities and towns pursue a balanced approach to land management, promote and market public lands, and invest in retiree-friendly infrastructure like accessible trailheads and geriatric health centers.


Additional quotes from across the West:

Boise, Idaho

“The blessings bestowed upon our part of the world by nature are a big part of why people of all ages, including retirees, love our city so much. Few places can offer the sophisticated urbane lifestyle of our city in the midst of the best the outdoors can offer. These are just some of the reasons we believe our mission of making Boise the most livable city in the country is well within our reach.” Boise Mayor David Bieter.

Grand Junction, Colorado

“We have a consistent influx of retirees which continue to help our economy in Grand Junction, and many of our real estate agents at the Grand Junction Area Realtors Association obtain Senior Real Estate Specialist certification so that we can give retirees every option for property ownership. The mild climate allows for a wide variety of activities year-round and the GJARA helps support efforts to make Grand Junction a wonderful place for retirees from an outdoor recreation standpoint.” Lynn Gillespie, Chairman, Grand Junction Area Realtors Association

Las Cruces, New Mexico

“Our local economy benefits from the permanent protection of our public lands by drawing a wide range of visitors and new residents to the Las Cruces area. Retirees are a big part of that — they are moving here because of the unbridled access to a huge range of outdoor recreation opportunities in places like the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National monument while enjoying the benefits of the numerous local businesses and other urban amenities this city has to offer.” Carrie Hamblen, Executive Director, Las Cruces Green Chamber of Commerce

“There are dozens of places right nearby where you can get out and into nature. In fact, I can look out my back door and see the Organ Mountains National Monument, and turn around and see Las Cruces out the front door. When I moved away from Indianapolis in 2010, the access to the outdoors was a major reason I relocated here.” Mark Benson, Las Cruces Retiree


“Research shows that protected public lands help to create a competitive economic advantage, contributing to growth in employment, population, and personal income. This new analysis shows seniors are actively choosing to relocate to places with abundant protected public lands, and they are in turn stimulating the local economy, bringing with them an influx of retirement and investment income.  As baby boomers retire in large numbers, the communities and counties that can tout access to National Parks, Monuments, and other protected lands will continue to reap the economic benefits of the migration of older Americans.” Chris Mehl, Policy Director, Headwaters Economics

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