By Sandra Chereb
CARSON CITY Nev. (Reuters) - Miles of sagebrush may be tedious to interstate travelers across the U.S. West, but the ecosystems supporting the scrubby plants are an economic generator, pumping millions into the local and national economies, according to a report released on Tuesday.
An analysis prepared by ECONorthwest, an Oregon-based economics firm, estimates that recreational visitors to sagebrush country in 11 Western states spent $623 million in communities within 50 miles of Bureau of Land Management recreational sites in 2013.
The study was commissioned by Western Values Project and The Pew Charitable Trusts.
"The results of our work might surprise some folks who might look out there and just see a wasteland, but it's a pretty important economic resource for a lot of people," said Kristin Lee, a co-author of the report.
The study is also intended to show the economic rewards of sagebrush habitat as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers whether sage grouse, a chicken-sized bird found across the West, should be protected under the Endangered Species Act.
The report focused on 61 million acres of sagebrush terrain managed by the BLM in California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
Nevada has the most sagebrush-covered land, about 28 million acres, or 40 percent of the state's land area. Of that, 20 million acres are managed by the BLM.
According to BLM data, there were 50 million visits to all BLM administered lands in 2013. The study calculated 13.8 million visits were associated with sagebrush acreage.
In sagebrush regions included in the analysis, the report estimated camping was the most popular activity, accounting for about 30.6 percent of visitor days. Big game hunting was the next popular activity at 11.5 percent.
Those visits mean spending on food, fuel and other goods and services _ with a big portion taking place in small communities near recreation sites.
Idaho had the largest amount of total expenditures at $126 million, followed by Montana at $111 million. Nevada came in third, with $88 million, followed by Wyoming.
The report estimated that the $623 million in direct spending region-wide had a $1 billion ripple effect on the total U.S. economy.
(Reporting by Sandra Chereb in Carson City; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Eric Walsh)