Economic Benefits of Wilderness

It's no easy task quantifying the full economic dimensions of wilderness, but it's an important one. One myth about wilderness is that it imposes economic costs on local communities. This idea is often embodied in the "jobs vs. environment" argument, suggesting that there's an inherent tradeoff between economic prosperity and strong environmental protection. Some opponents of wilderness designation claim it "locks up" acreage that otherwise could generate revenue through the extraction of timber, minerals, and other resources, or the motorized recreation prohibited in wilderness.

Actually, wilderness areas protect the environment and positively impact local and national economies.

Parsing out the dollars and cents of wilderness may be a relatively new endeavor, but it's important to remember that economic evaluations have shaped land management for centuries. Consider the fact that, in many cases, areas that meet federal standards for wilderness are often those that had been deemed too unproductive, infertile, remote, or rugged to harvest, cultivate, or develop. The same is true for certain national parks and other protected wildlands. In other instances, wildernesses have been established in places already logged, farmed, mined, or otherwise utilized and then essentially abandoned for those purposes.

Wilderness Economics: Onsite, Passive-Use, Ecosystem Services

An analysis published in the International Journal of Wilderness in 2014 of more than a dozen studies considering the dollar value of wilderness recreation—value generated from onsite wilderness benefits—calculated an average of $84 per person per day (in 2013 dollars). Using that figure and an estimate of some 10.1 million visits in 2012 to the National Wilderness Preservation System, the study suggested wilderness areas might translate to $850 million or so in yearly use values.

Besides the revenue generated by wilderness visits that can flow into local "gateway" communities—from money spent by the wilderness user directly (on gas, groceries, and other supplies) to profits spent locally by wilderness guides and outfitters—there are many other monetary benefits. For instance, indirect wilderness values-such as bequest, option, and existence values-produce so-called "passive-use" or "non-use benefits."

While these are harder than onsite-use benefits to pin hard numbers to, recent decades have seen more and more studies attempting to do just that: For instance, surveying people's willingness to pay for wilderness to be protected for those intrinsic benefits with the knowledge that they can visit wilderness areas, or that future generations can, or simply that wilderness exists. The International Journal of Wilderness assessment also compared a number of these analyses of wilderness passive-use values and produced a "conservative" estimate of their total yearly benefit at $5 billion. 

Passive-use values aren't the only off-site benefits wilderness areas confer. Wilderness also performs a staggering suite of ecosystem services—watershed protection, carbon sequestration, water filtering, fish/wildlife habitat, nutrient cycling, and others—which directly benefit humankind at the most basic and life-sustaining level. The Forest Service, for example, estimates that one out of every five Americans drinks water that comes from wilderness. The recent International Journal of Wilderness review estimated such ecosystem services delivered by wilderness areas may equate to a monetary value of some $3.5 billion annually. 

Using the above figures, the International Journal of Wilderness paper gauged the combined yearly benefits to the U.S. population from National Wilderness Preservation System use, passive-use, and ecosystem-services values on the order of $9.4 billion ($85 per acre).

People walking along a thin desert shelf trail

Wilderness & Property Values

There's also recent research to suggest that proximity to wilderness increases property values, and that land prices decrease with distance from a wilderness boundary. For example, the per-acre price of residential land near Vermont's Green Mountain National Forest (which contained six wilderness areas at the time of the calculations) was almost 19% higher in townships containing wilderness, and land prices decreased by 0.33% with every kilometer (six-tenths of a mile) farther from a wilderness boundary.

Interestingly, the Vermont study didn't find a connection between such spillover property-value boosts and non-wilderness Forest Service land, suggesting, as a 2015 Journal of Forestry paper put it, "that designated wilderness influences land prices in a way that simple public ownership does not." 

Another off-site wilderness benefit is the scientific one. One study suggested the societal value of journal articles focused on wilderness equals some $6.6 million per year.

Wilderness as a Commodity

It's important to note that some advocates for wilderness have concerns with commodifying it in the first place. The difficulty economists have in quantifying some of the qualities most associated with wilderness—such as those very real but elusive existence, bequest, and intrinsic values—underscores, for such critics, that these places occupy a realm beyond economics. A skyline of nameless peaks, a valley of ancient forest, the almost instinctive thrill a backpacker or kayaker or bowhunter feels in roadless backcountry, the healthy function of an ecosystem evolved across millennia. To some, these are elements that can't be captured by dollar values. 

In The Abstract Wild, Jack Turner argues against using traditional economic language to describe ecological processes and the innate power of wild places, even when it's being ostensibly used to protect and promote them. "Since economics is a world of resources-physical resources, cultural resources, recreational resources, visual resources, human resources-our wonderfully diverse, joyful world must be reduced to measurable resources," Turner writes. "This involves abstraction, translation, and a value. Just as time is abstracted from experience and rendered mechanical (the clock) so it can be measured, space is abstracted from place and becomes property: measurable land. In the same way, trees are abstracted into board-feet, wild rivers are abstracted into acre-feet, and beauty is abstracted into a scene whose value is measured by polls." 

Defining the long-term economic benefits of wilderness helps demonstrate in cold, hard numbers the very real financial gain communities, counties, and states can enjoy from it near or within their bounds—even as we recognize that the more primal, experiential, and existence benefits of wilderness may, for many, resist such a numbers breakdown entirely. That's the complexity of wilderness, and that's the diverse spread of the people and emotions wilderness calls to. Meanwhile, the use of the National Wilderness Preservation System, in all senses of its economic value, remains on a significant upward trend-as it has been since the Wilderness Act was minted back in the mid-1960s.