This article first appeared in Trail & Timberline magazine, in an issue devoted entirely to the subject of wilderness. To see the entire magazine, including the below article, CLICK HERE.
What’s wilderness worth? Listen to the eloquence of John Muir and Wallace Stegner; feel the passion of David Brower and study the methodical ethic of Aldo Leopold. Their words define wilderness. Yet, their thoughts never amounted to a sum value. Worth can—and in the case of wilderness, should—mean so much more.
Now, however, in an era of caustic debate falsely pitting land against man—landscape preservation against economic salvation—the answer to the question of what wilderness is worth has taken on new power.
“People opposed to wilderness began raising the economic question,” says John Loomis, a professor of agricultural and resource economics at Colorado State University. “Mining, timber, livestock grazing, even the chamber of commerce will say, ‘Oh my god, these are elitists that want wilderness.’”
So, after Loomis and other economists considered the question, we have wilderness economics—and can place a value on protected places, if we so feel the need.
Most of us know better than to rely on private enterprise to tell us the value—both tangible and intangible—of wilderness. The argument placed forth by extractive industries—that removal is the only use that yields wealth—is an epic lie. Theirs is a penchant for converting the natural wealth contained in the nation’s pristine forests, deserts, canyons, and mesas into a fleeting boon of corporate profit. It never lasts. Indeed, it can’t last.
Ultimately, the choice is not, and never has been, between mining (and money) and preservation (and poverty).
John Muir used powerful words to express the value of Yosemite Valley. Now, words aren't enough. Wilderness preservation has been positioned by some as the opponent of economy salvation, albeit falsely. Still,wilderness economics begs the question: How much would you pay to see a place like Yosemite last for eternity? How much would you pay to make sure your grandchild had a chance to witness mists rise from the valley floor?
As many people are now realizing— politicians, boards of tourism, and county commissioners alike—wilderness means money, too. And wilderness lasts.
As many of the early wilderness proponents—trained scientists—knew, wilderness protection was about far more than recreation. “There is economic value just by preserving it,” Loomis says, referring to those less tangible benefits that have for so long been ignored. “Economic valuation provides some balance to the environment versus people dichotomy, which is a false comparison.”
But why has it taken so long for people to realize the sum value of wilderness? It may have to do with the complexity of economic valuation.
We can all see (and many of us take part in) the direct use benefits: things like hiking and hunting. Furthermore, the science community needs wilderness as a baseline for research and education. We all benefit from wilderness’ capacity to improve the resources most precious for life: air and water. These and other ecosystem services, as they are known, continue to gain prominence in the grand scheme of land protection, as we learn more about the benefits of carbon storage, nutrient cycling, and waste treatment provided by wilderness. Still, these things only constitute a portion of the total value of wilderness and wild landscapes.
The difficulty in understanding and calculating the sum value comes from things economists call passive-use values. They’re often broken into three categories: option values, bequest values, and existence values. The option value is akin to an insurance policy: people are willing to pay for more than their expected recreation benefits to maintain the option—for themselves or for their children—of visiting wildlands in the future. Similarly, the bequest value of wilderness protection represents what we would be willing to pay to bequest wildlands to our kids. Hardest to grasp, perhaps, is existence value, the notion that there is a psychological value a person enjoys from just knowing that a wilderness exists—regardless of whether the person will ever visit an area.
Politicians have tended to ignore the wilderness economics numbers. Preferring to cater to extractive priorities, they have chosen to view profit dollars through the short-term lens—that which is present and understandable—rather than employing more complex arithmetic to determine the economic value of a place over generations.
Yet, the figures for simple recreation—something that is tangible and profit-based—are stunning. In 1995, U.S. Forest Service economists measured the agency’s holdings and found that national forests generated $125 billion a year in economic activity. An astounding 75 percent of that figure was based on recreation economy. Timber and mining, by contrast, amounted to 15 percent. By 1995, it had become all too apparent that recreation, and not timber, was the Forest Service’s main product.
Furthermore, recently developed economic models have shown that public lands benefit more from quiet recreation—the hunting, fishing, hiking, and camping that take place so often in wilderness—than from motorized recreation. In Colorado’s Arapaho and Roosevelt national forests, for example, nonmotorized recreation provided 1,228 jobs and $37.8 million in income, compared with 244 jobs and $11.7 million for motorized recreation.
So, what does this all mean for a place like Colorado?
No case study may be more applicable than Kane County, Utah, which lies about 210 miles south of Salt Lake City. That’s because Kane County, home to much of the Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument, was once the site of one of Utah’s most intense wilderness battles. It started in 1996, when the Clinton administration designated the 1.7 million-acre monument. That made Bill Clinton in Kane County about as popular as George Bush in Berkeley.
Alarmist predictions of economic disaster coursed through the small town and county seat of Kanab after plans to open a coal mine on the monument’s grassy Kaiparowits Plateau were halted by the designation. Instead of visions of boom, there were omens of bust.
Contrary to the residents’ worst fears, the bust never came. Instead, economic findings suggest that Kane County began to thrive. A comparison of data from the four years prior to the monument’s creation (1992–1996) with data from the four years after showed that the unemployment rate in the county dropped by more than half, while labor income rose faster than it had in the pre-monument period. Per-job earnings, which fell 7 percent before the monument, rose 13 percent after it was created. Property values rose significantly, too (after seeing a decline in years leading up to the designation). And, on Main Street, the average wage per job went up.
With the fortunes of the county hitched to the well-being of the mining industry and, therefore, at the mercy of globally determined price trends, Kane County could have suffered a roller coaster economic ride.
Instead, there was a path to sustainable growth. It wasn’t from a short-term influx of coal mining revenues. Word migrated that the area had a new monument. Some started visiting; others moved their businesses to Kanab, population 4,500, or decided to retire in Kane County.
An influx of retirees spurred growth in health-care jobs. Recreation boomed, of course. And, services that cater to the traveler grew, too.
Best of all, the landscape that drew all of this attention is never going to pack up and leave the area.
It, like all federally designated wilderness areas, lives on like the words of Muir, Stegner, Brower, and Leopold: forever.
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