CMH Act and the Wilderness Debate: The Environment vs. The Economy

Posted: Dec 15, 2019

General Overview:

Colorado Senator Mark Udall is asking for public comments on a proposal for as many as 32 areas in Eagle, Pitkin and Summit counties. This would mean up to 236,000 acres of land that would be designated as Wilderness and Special-Management Areas (SMAs). (Read more about the proposal here.)

Although each area in the proposal is unique, there are some commonalities in how local communities historically have been affected by Wilderness designations. Advocates of the proposal argue that Wilderness designations are a way to stimulate local economies while simultaneously protecting the valuable natural resources of an area. Those opposed to the proposal argue that a Wilderness designation would have a detrimental effect to local economies by stifling the local job market and preventing people from using public land as they wish.

It is impossible to know exactly what the effects would be for the areas in the Central Mountain Heritage Act. However, the real issue is how to balance our desires--one for wilderness conservation and the other for improving the current job market. We must determine what sacrifices, if any, we are willing to make in order to protect the environment or stimulate local economies. To do this we must first decide where our values ultimately lie when it comes to the environment and the economy.

Potential Positive Effects of a Wilderness Designation:

There are many positive effects that can be associated with a Wilderness designation. The first, and most intentional effect, is the preservation of the land that is designated as Wilderness. Wilderness designations prohibit development and mechanized recreation. Human activities in Wilderness areas are restricted to scientific study and non-mechanized recreation. Horses are permitted but mechanized vehicles and equipment, such as cars and bicycles, are not. These restrictions help preserve the natural state of the land, as well as protect flora and fauna.

Furthermore, Wilderness designation can also have a positive effect on the local economies of surrounding communities. Environmentalists argue that the presence of Wilderness attracts residents and businesses to nearby communities. Wilderness designations can increase property values and create a higher quality of life in those communities, and can contribute to a healthy tourism industry.

Headwater Economics, a nonprofit organization that studies the economics of natural resources, recently released a report on The Economic Value of Public Lands Around Grand County, Utah. The report analyzes the major economic role that public lands near Grand County, Utah play in the region. The study examined a wide range of public land uses, including mining and agriculture, but focused on recreation because this type of use represents the largest, most complex, and least understood activities on public lands in that county.

The study found that more than one-third of households have a member that works in a tourism and recreation business related to public lands. Nearly two-thirds of local residents indicate that public lands are “extremely important” to their businesses. Tourism and recreation on public lands are the largest economic sector in Grand County. Businesses operating in these areas are the main drivers of the local economy (accounting for 44% of private employment) and also produce a significant amount of tax revenue (16% of local government revenue). Within this sector accommodation, food services, and retail trade are the dominant businesses, which account for more than 80 percent of tourism and recreation jobs.

The study also found that, in addition to the economic benefits of tourism and recreation, Grand County’s high-profile public lands—and the environmental and recreational amenities they provide—are closely linked to population growth and other economic benefits. The county, for example, has had success attracting new residents who find the communities and surrounding public lands in the area compelling—almost one-third of net population growth in the last decade resulted from in-migration.

While the areas in the Wilderness proposal are not the exact same as Grand County, there are many regional similarities. It would not take a tremendous stretch of the imagination to assume that Wilderness designations could have a similar effect in central Colorado as well.

Potential Negative Effects of a Wilderness Designation:

There are many negative effects that can be associated with a Wilderness designation. First, there is potential for a negative effect on local economies. By designating the land Wilderness, the government is essentially “locking up” the resources on that land. This can create economic hardships by limiting extractive industries, outdoor recreation, as well as limiting potential locations for transportation corridors, water and power lines, and telecommunication facilities.

In a study written by several professors at Utah State University and published by the Pacific Research Institute, the authors attempted to quantify the impact of Wilderness designations. To do this, they conducted a longitudinal statistical analysis of every county in the United States dating back to 1995, using measurements of economic conditions in those counties taken every five years.

The study found that while controlling for other factors that influence economic conditions, counties with Wilderness designations have lower per capita income, lower total payroll, and lower total tax receipts; which are the factors used by the study to measure the economic conditions of the counties. When reviewing these factors and comparing Wilderness and Non-Wilderness Counties, they found that Wilderness Counties are at an economic disadvantage to their Non-Wilderness counterparts.

However, the study noted that a variety of factors could lead to the negative relationship between Wilderness and economic conditions. Arguably, areas “untrammeled by man” have less existing economic activity and reducing the potential for future economic development by designating those areas as Wilderness will not, on net, be economically positive.

It is also possible that different types of Wilderness may have different implications for economic conditions. Four federal agencies currently manage Wilderness Areas, and different agencies may have different economic impacts on counties. Wilderness within National Parks, for instance, may more effectively attract more tourists than Wilderness on Bureau of Land Management or National Forest Service lands.

The study also found that while there may be other legitimate, non-economic reasons for the designation of Wilderness, the tradeoff will likely impose an economic burden on local families and businesses. Benefits and costs from Wilderness are unevenly distributed between local and non-local communities, with local communities incurring a larger burden of the costs.

Furthermore, Wilderness designations can impose significant limitations on use that often directly conflict with the public’s increasing desire for access to public lands. Many people who may currently use or wish to use the Wilderness area in the future for recreational activities may not be able to do so once the area is designated as Wilderness. It also limits the area to a smaller percentage of the population by limiting vehicle access. The average age of Americans is increasing, which creates an issue of limited access for an increasing number of older people who are unable to reach certain areas due to limited vehicle access.

Many people who enjoy these activities, or run their businesses based on them could lose those opportunities. These people have a strong argument that they should not be robbed of those opportunities. Wilderness land is public land, and they own it too.


As shown through the examples above, economic studies related to Wilderness designations are mixed. There are studies that show that there is a positive relationship between public lands and economic growth. Then there are studies that show there is the opposite effect for the same relationship. It really is not entirely clear whether Wilderness designation helps or harms local economies.

One explanation for this is that there really is no true consistent and direct correlation between a Wilderness designation and the effects on a local economy. Instead, other factors that determine how well a community adapts to change are likely to be the more determinate factors in how they are affected by nearby Wilderness designations.

In the end, whether local economies are stimulated, stifled, or remain relatively unchanged, Wilderness still provides the public with the resource of untouched wild land. This resource can last as long as the earth does, if we take care of it. Extractive resources from those lands, on the other hand, are limited. Thus, the resource of wild land has the opportunity to provide much more value in the long term.

Finally, I believe that the intangible resources provided by wild land are invaluable and essential to human existence. Even though the value placed on these intangible qualities varies by person, it is still essential that as a society we provide the public with the opportunities to experience and escape to the Wilderness, whether they choose to take advantage of that opportunity or not.  This may mean sacrificing economic growth in the short term, but the value we provide future generations can last forever. 

~TK Keith

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