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Busted: Right-wing “environmental research” group uses falsified data to justify state land grab

Last week, a well-known conservative think tank, Utah’s Sutherland Institute, released a report that claimed state parks are more efficiently managed and more popular than national parks across the West. The report, which was co-written with the right-wing Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), relied almost entirely on state park attendance data to draw its conclusions. The report got major coverage from the Deseret News, complete with a headline claiming “States manage public lands for recreation better than feds.”

There’s just one problem: Sutherland and PERC used erroneous numbers throughout their report.

The report cited statistics from the National Association of State Park Directors 2014 annual report (you can see the visitation data on page 19). When those numbers made it into the Sutherland report, however, they changed: PERC and Sutherland gave Oregon’s visitation data to New Mexico, Utah’s numbers to Oregon, and Washington’s to Utah. Washington received visitation data from Wisconsin—a state which wasn’t included in the Sutherland/PERC report.

The result of this four-state switcheroo gave Utah, which happens to be the focus of much of PERC’s research, a ten-fold increase in annual park attendance—35 million instead of 3.5 million. (You can read PERC’s original report, complete with bad data on page 35.)

PERC used that erroneous data to invent a metric, “state park visits per acre,” to bolster its claim that Utah state parks are wildly more popular than national parks or state parks in neighboring Western states (see page 26). By this invented metric, a small city park in just about any town in America would outcompete America’s finest national treasures, like Arches and Grand Canyon National Park.

Had Sutherland and PERC used accurate park visitation data, their graphs would have painted a very different picture for the people of Utah:


The reality shows just how pointless the metric invented by Sutherland and PERC is. Visits per acre tells us nothing about the quality of a park or its management. When you use accurate numbers to do PERC’s math, Oregon far and away leads the West in visits per acre—18 times more than Utah. If that was in any way relevant to a state’s ability to manage land, then Oregon wouldn’t be in the midst of selling off a state forest it can’t afford to maintain.

We’ll likely never know whether Sutherland and PERC falsified its numbers intentionally, or just happened to make a mistake that made Utah look ten times “better” than it is. We do know that the erroneous report shows how desperate the backers of the land seizure movement have become.

There is no objective data to back up their claims that states are better land managers. There is, however, plenty of data that show states would be on the hook for billions of dollars in firefighting and mine cleanup costs if they took over national land.

The Center for Western Priorities calls on the Sutherland Institute and PERC to fully retract its “Divided Access” reports. This attempt, witting or unwitting, to mislead the people of Utah should give reporters and the public pause the next time these groups try to justify their land seizure agenda.

Full comparison of PERC’s erroneous data vs. actual state park attendance, 2012-2013: sutherland-perc-table

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