Best of the West: Economies rebound as Western states lift COVID restrictions; Kansas revives rare species; Hawaii builds energy resilience; Alaska celebrates Denali’s first ascent

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting June 7, 2021. (Photos courtesy of Mike Petrucci and UAF Rasmuson Library)  

Signs of economic recovery are becoming clearer across the West in the wake of most states lifting COVID-19 restrictions over Memorial Day weekend. According to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Commerce, real GDP increased across all 50 states in the fourth quarter of 2020, with South Dakota leading the nation with a growth rate of 9.9%. As restrictions continue to be lifted, most economists expect this trend to continue.    

Thanks to the passage of the Alaska Tourism Restoration Act, cruise ships will return to Juneau in southeast Alaska, but not other parts of the state. Nevertheless, companies throughout The Last Frontier state are seeing a surge in bookings from visitors who traveled north independently, and who stay longer and spend more. While business owners in Montana don’t quite expect to make up the $450 million lost in travel spending last year, they do expect 2021 to be a “big rebound year.” Many flyfishing guide services are fully booked through the summer and car rental companies are struggling to keep up with demand. 

People were so anxious to get back to Hawaii, the tropical island surpassed pre-pandemic levels for visitors traveling from the U.S in May. Though officials expect international travel will take longer to reach pre-pandemic levels, they estimated its tourism industry will reach 70% of pre-pandemic levels by late summer, spurring the state’s economic recovery and creating a $500 million budget surplus.   

While other western states continue to wait for tourism to rebound, along with the requisite hospitality jobs, an increase in wages, federal stimulus payments, and sharp gains in home and stock market equity have enabledresidents to spur economic recoveries in their home states by spending more money locally. “Consumers flush with swelling bank accounts, record personal savings and household wealth, and an appetite to spend like a sailor on furlough will drive the recovery,” Scott Anderson, the chief economist at Bank of the West in San Francisco, Californiatold The Los Angeles Times

In March, New Mexico had the highest matched taxable gross receipts ($6.4 billion) since December 2019 ($6.8 billion). Arizona experienced a similarly sharp increase in taxable retail sales, which up 16.7% from January 2020. With household incomes in Oregon 20% higher than before COVID-19 hit, “the outlook for near-term economic growth is the strongest in decades,” Oregon economist Mark McMullen told The Chronicle. According to economic forecasts, the Beaver State expects its labor market to return to full health in the next two years. Idaho, on the other hand, has already seen its job growth recover to and even exceed pre-pandemic levels in almost all industries.

THEY’RE BACK: From 1904 to 2007 there were no confirmed sightings of mountain lions in Kansas. Since then, residents have seen 36, including 12 last year and 3 this year. Similar patterns are also emerging for elk, black bears, river otters and armadillos. Sightings of wild turkey, Canada goose and deer populations have gone from "very rare to very abundant” thanks to wildlife conservation efforts. Most of these species saw their populations decline because of subsistence living and associated unregulated harvest for food or livestock protection. "Now that people's actions have become favorable, they've rebounded," Matt Peek, a wildlife research biologist for the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, told The Topeka Capital-Journal

POWERING UP: Just in time for hurricane season, Hawaii completed the Schofield Generating Station, a microgrid system capable of powering the Schofield Barracks, Wheeler Army Airfield and Field Station Kunia in case of a power outage with 100% renewable energy. During a test of its capacity, the Station restored power to all three installations in less than an hour. Located inland on Oahu and protected from the potential impact of storms, tsunami and rising sea level, Jack Shriver, the Hawaiian Electric Director of Project Development, said “[The] Schofield Generating Station can keep critical infrastructure operating during a major outage, hastening recovery.”

WELL CLEANUP PAYS OFF: A new study from Matthew Moran, a Professor of Biology at Hendrix College, found that the $16 billion proposed in the American Jobs Plan for plugging abandoned oil and gas wells and restoring the land around them could generate billions in commerce and trigger significant environmental benefits. According to Moran, there are more than 430,000 old well sites around the country, many of which have associated infrastructure such as access roads, storage areas and fluid tanks. If that land was used for agriculture, the study estimated it could generate over $14 billion in crops over the next 50 years and absorb millions of tons of carbon from the atmosphere. It also would provide habitat for wildlife and could produce timber for harvesting. The Western Governors has communicated their support for legislation to assist states’ cleanup activities on abandoned and orphaned oil and gas wells.

FIRST ON TOP: On June 7, 1913, Athabascan mountaineer Walter Harper from Alaska, then 20 years old, became the first person to summit Denali, the highest peak in North America. This year, Alaskans are celebrating Harper’s accomplishments by building a new statue of him near the Chena River, the historical home of the Athabascanpeople, along with a special episode of the Molly of Denali TV show on PBS. “We really hope to educate the public about Walter Harper and his accomplishments and his life, we believe his leadership is something to emulate,” Sarah Obed, a spokeswoman for the Walter Harper Project, told Alaska Public Media.  

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