Debating the economic benefits of wilderness

Posted: Oct 26, 2011

Written by

PHIL TAYLOR, Greenwire
Alpine Lakes Wilderness

Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter (R) told the House Natural Resources Committee in March that more golfers play the floating green in Coeur d'Alene in a single day than visit the Frank Church-River of No Return wilderness in an entire year.

It was a bold claim by the governor of a state that has the third most wilderness of the lower 48 states. The 2.3-million-acre Frank Church wilderness, named for the former Democratic senator from Idaho, is the largest Forest Service wilderness area outside of Alaska.

"There's a major difference in the quality of the job[s] and the return on the job[s] between what we are talking about and the management of our resources for multiple [use]," Otter told the committee at an oversight hearing on a now-scrapped Interior Department policy to protect wilderness-quality lands.

"So when you are matching tourism dollars, tell me how many people go buy a backpack, and tell me how many people put in some granola and go into the Frank Church?"

Otter's argument may repeat itself tomorrow when the National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee holds its first hearing on six bills to create new wilderness, the highest form of public lands protection (E&E Daily, Oct. 24).

Committee leaders have long debated the economic benefits of new wilderness, which bans energy development, motorized travel and other permanent fixtures from public lands. Research on the economic impacts of wilderness has drawn mixed conclusions.

A sizable body of studies has found that protecting public lands makes surrounding communities more attractive to tourists, retirees and small business owners and can help counties lessen their dependence on commodities.

"In a modern economy today, if you think of who's competitive globally, it's our ability to attract talented workers," said Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters Economics, a research firm in Bozeman, Mont., that conducts independent research and commissioned studies for government agencies and conservation groups.

"What are talented workers looking for? One of the things they look for is quality of life and recreational access," he said.

Rasker pointed to cities like Bozeman and Missoula, Mont.; Flagstaff, Ariz.; Bend, Ore.; and Durango, Colo., as examples of places that have seized the value of public lands recreation.

He cited a recruiting website for Internet-based company PrintingForLess that shows an aerial photo of Silicon Valley next to a photograph of snow-capped mountains taken from an employee's back porch near Livingston, Mont. "You could live here, in Silicon Valley. ... Or here, in Paradise Valley," the website says.

But policymakers may ask for proof that wilderness designations -- which offer different opportunities than national parks, monuments and recreation areas -- have in fact generated new jobs and government revenue.

Studies on that topic have conflicting results.

Paul Lorah, a geography professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, found that wilderness is correlated with income, employment and population growth and can hasten a community's transition from extractive industries to an amenity-based economy.

"The role logging, mining and agriculture play in supporting rural economies is declining," he wrote in a 2000 study published in the USDA Forest Service Proceedings. "At the same time, counties rich in environmental amenities are growing relatively rapidly. Taken together, this suggests that environmental amenities act as a catalyst in the transition from stagnating extractive industries to relatively diversified amenity economies."

A more place-based study in 2004 by Spencer Phillips, who works for the Wilderness Society, found a positive correlation between market values for residential properties and their proximity to wilderness areas in Vermont's Green Mountain National Forest.

Other studies have reached opposite conclusions about how wilderness affects surrounding communities.

Ryan Yonk, a professor at Southern Utah University, recently told the House Natural Resources Committee that wilderness designations are "significantly associated" with lower per-capita income, lower total payroll and lower total tax receipts in surrounding counties.

"The argument often stated by the environmental community that wilderness is good for local economies is simply not supported by the data," Yonk said. While wilderness does serve emotional, ecological and cultural purposes, he said, "Our results show that those purposes are accomplished at a cost to local economies."

His study, "The Economic Costs of Wilderness," was published by the Pacific Research Institute, a San Francisco-based free-market think tank.

Critics note the study has not been peer-reviewed or published in scientific literature and fails to evaluate whether economies grew faster or more slowly after wilderness was designated.

The disagreement points to an inherent challenge in measuring how wilderness affects surrounding economies, which are highly dependent on other factors such as the education of workers and highways and airports that offer access to broader markets.

"It's not like everybody is coming up with the same conclusion," said Rasker of Headwaters Economics.

Wilderness may have different impacts on Bozeman than on energy-dependent economies like Vernal, Utah. Moreover, wilderness designated on Bureau of Land Management or Forest Service lands can have a different impact than in national parks, which are typically more developed and accessible.

"Is there such a thing as an objective study that has assumptions that everyone can agree are reasonable?" said Jim DiPeso, policy director for Republicans for Environmental Protection. "There may be no such animal."

And while studies gauging the economic impacts of wilderness have shown mixed, and sometimes conflicting, results, conservationists say those who judge wilderness strictly on its economic merits miss the point.

The 1964 Wilderness Act was passed to keep some places "untrammeled by man," where nature would be left to its own devices and humans could find solitude, recreational opportunities and, for some, spiritual rejuvenation, supporters note.

"When you get into these intangible ideals, there is no way to quantify that," DiPeso said. "You either get it or you don't."

Rasker pointed to a bumper sticker seen in parts of the West that reads: "Wilderness: land of no use."

"That shows the divide between how people think about it," he said. "One side looks at that bumper sticker and says, exactly, that's the point -- that it's not being used.'"

At a time when lawmakers are seeking every piece of loose change to reduce the deficit and create jobs, wilderness advocates face an uphill battle pushing bills through a partisan 112th Congress. Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), the subcommittee's chairman, said he is not categorically opposed to new wilderness but that he hopes people realize that land protections are not a substitute for an industrial base.

"Tourism that comes from wilderness is a good thing to have, but it's in addition to [an economic] base," Bishop said. "Outdoor recreation cannot be an impediment to creating a manufacturing and mining base. There's no way the state can economically survive otherwise."

The subpanel will consider legislation to create some 125,000 acres of new wilderness in New Mexico, Oregon, Michigan, Washington and California. Four of the bills are sponsored by Republicans.

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