Here at Open Country, we are ever talking about access lost, taken, or otherwise unwon. Less frequently, we celebrate the intrinsic value of the abundant public access that we possess as Americans.

In that way, enjoying free and accessible public land is a little like enjoying clean water or air. We don’t appreciate it until we don’t have it.

But one group of Americans not only embraces our national heritage of public access to public lands, but is factoring it in their choice of where to live.

An interesting op-ed piece in this week’s Billings Gazette details the demographic trend of retirees migrating to places that have abundant recreational access on public lands.

Some take-aways from the economic study commissioned by Headwaters Economics (the Gazette piece was written by a Headwaters’ economist):

—The presence of nearby protected public lands affects a community’s retirement destination appeal.
—In Montana over the last generation, the net rate of migration by retirees to counties with more federal protected public lands was 6 percent, compared with a net loss of 1 percent from those counties with less protected public land.
—The peak migrators are those “pre-retirees,” those 55- to 64-year-olds who presumably are affluent enough to relocate and physically active enough to enjoy the recreational possibilities public land offers. Interestingly, this group appears to value quality-of-life factors above factors such as proximity to medical care.

These modern migrants often bring stable retirement wages, disposable incomes, and also boost local economies through property values and taxes, and they tend to view public land as a source of both rejuvenation and recreation. Looked through this lens, then, accessible federal land has a much broader (and presumably more sustainable) value than simply its resource-extraction potential.