Archaeology and Economic Development 2012

Towards a Cultural Economy: Lessons from the American Southwest

The United States of America has an enviable volume and diversity of public lands; lands held in trust for all Americans to enjoy.  However, there is a war raging in the US between exploitative and protectionist ideals.  The war’s main victim is America’s public lands.  Some believe that our precious public lands, open landscapes preserved for their scenic beauty and ecological assets (especially clean air and water), are best used for their resources, specifically their energy (oil, gas, and coal) reserves.  Protectionists believe that these lands must remain undeveloped to preserve their ecological functioning and prevent damage to non-renewable cultural resources. The economic recession rocking the economy of America has only served to heighten this divide between protectionism and exploitation, with jobs and local economies hanging in the balance.  

It is the responsibility of archaeologists to contribute their perspective on this debate.  Cultural resources are non-renewable and easily damaged or destroyed by the types of extractive development proposed for public lands.  In addition to highlighting heritage tourism economies built on travel, lodging and expenditures (a $759 billion business in America), how can archaeologists help to place a value on the preservation of historical sites?  We know the price of destroying our own history, but do we know its cost?

For public lands in America to receive due consideration of all their values by decision-makers, those of us who advocate for their continued protection must be able to measure and quantify the economic values of these lands – including the economies of their cultural and ecological values.  Advances have been made in establishing monetary values for cultural resources in terms of heritage tourism.  Similarly, values can be put on ecological benefits, such as clean air and water.  However, those who wish to protect America’s public lands must be conversant in the language of economics in order to prevail over those who only see America’s public lands as places for exploitation and development.

Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, a 30-year old nonprofit, non-partisan archaeological research and education institution in the American southwest, has developed a series of best practices to showcase the unique economic benefits of cultural resources preservation, including heritage tourism.  Crow Canyon is a leader in introducing people to the archaeological treasures of the American southwest.  In addition to the local economic benefits of operating a nationally-recognized archaeological center and a 170-acre campus in small, rural Cortez, Colorado, Crow Canyon has brought approximately 100,000 people from across the country and the World to southwest Colorado.  With this perspective, Crow Canyon is uniquely qualified to develop and disseminate high quality information on the economic benefits -- locally, nationally, and globally -- of cultural resources.

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