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.
The revenue generated by wilderness visits includes a range of spending types, and we can use a hotel as an example to explain the differences. Direct spending is the payment by the wilderness visitor to spend a night or two at a hotel, before or after their wilderness trip. Indirect spending is represented by supply purchases made by hotel owners to provide food, drinks, and cleaning services for the wilderness visitor. Induced spending includes the recirculation of hotel worker’s income, as they spend their paychecks on things like groceries and entertainment for their families. An economic analysis published in 2017 in the Journal of Society and Natural Resources estimated that, in 2012, 9.9 million wilderness visitors directly spent $500 million in communities adjacent to wilderness areas, generating 5,700 jobs and a total economic effect nationwide of $700 million (including all three types of spending).
Obviously, spending isn't distributed evenly across the wilderness system. Wilderness areas vary in popularity and remoteness, meaning that they also vary in the levels of tourism spending they bring to local communities. In areas where visitors primarily come from out-of-state, this can result in a significant influx of new money to gateway communities. Wilderness recreation in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness—one of the most-visited wilderness areas in the country and one which also attracts lots of out-of-state visitors—brings in $56 million annually to the three counties surrounding the wilderness and creates 1100 full and part-time jobs. Most wilderness areas, however, will attract more modest tourism income.
Aside from recreation, there are many other monetary benefits derived from wilderness. An off-site wilderness benefit is the scientific one—the value of science conducted in wilderness areas. One study suggested the societal value of journal articles focused on wilderness equals some $6.6 million per year.
So-called "passive-use" or "non-use benefits" such as bequest, option, and existence values are harder benefits to pin hard numbers to. But recent decades have seen more and more studies attempting to do just that by, 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. A 2014 article in the International Journal of Wilderness compared a number of studies of wilderness passive-use values and produced a "conservative" estimate of their total yearly benefit at $5 billion—ten times that generated by recreation spending.
Passive-use values aren't the only non-use benefits wilderness areas confer. Wilderness also performs a staggering suite of ecosystem services—watershed protection, carbon sequestration, water filtering, animal 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 same International Journal of Wilderness article estimated such ecosystem services delivered by wilderness areas may equate to a monetary value of some $3.5 billion annually.
In total, the International Journal of Wilderness article gauged the combined yearly benefits to the U.S. population from wilderness recreation, passive-use, and ecosystem-services values on the order of $9.4 billion ($85 per acre).
Proximity, or nearness, to wilderness increases property values, and 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."
Similarly, economic studies show that people are more likely to move to Western counties with wilderness. Population increases due to proximity to natural, or other, amenities is called amenity migration. One study of public land amenity migration between 1980 and 2010 showed that rural Western counties with wilderness averaged over eight percent in-migration (people moving in), while rural counties without wilderness had zero growth on average. The two types of protected public lands that were most highly associated with greater amenity migration rates were wilderness and national monuments.
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.