Designated Wilderness: A Cost or a Benefit?

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The United States land mass covers nearly 2.3 billion acres. About 27 percent of that is managed by one of the government’s four federal land agencies: the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, and National Park Service. And 18 percent of that, or five percent of the nation, is managed as designated Wilderness Areas. These are areas that are supposed to be left “untrammeled by man,” or in their "primeval" state.

Designated Wilderness Areas provide a multitude of benefits. These are presumably the last areas of the nation to be left to nature. They are areas where nature can run her course and humans can learn by watching, experience low-impact recreation, and enhance personal value by knowing they exist. These are areas where ecosystems are left to prosper, or not, without human intervention.

There is a wealth of literature about the wealth in nature. Indeed, unspoiled nature provides value through outdoor recreation and beautiful viewsheds. In fact, more and more, people are willing to pay to live and recreate near attractive landscapes. Wilderness advocates have attempted to tabulate these economic values to support their agenda for greater land protections and more wilderness designations. Non-market values, however, such as beautiful vistas and habitat, are difficult to measure and can hence be deceptive.

Neglected in much of the ‘wealth in nature’ literature are the costs of restricting land use. The estimated value provided by wilderness often excludes the potential values foregone; the value of timber not harvested, minerals not extracted, gas not pumped. The recreational opportunities lost from biking, snowmobiling, and four-wheeling, none of which are allowed in designated wilderness, are ignored.

While setting lands aside to protect them for one use can be beneficial, the policy decision for the set-aside should include both the benefits and the costs.

(For a thorough analysis of the wealth in nature see Accounting for Mother Nature: Changing Demands for Her Bounty2008. Eds. Anderson, Huggins, and Power. Stanford University Press. Stanford, CA.)

Originally posted at Environmental Trends.

Holly Fretwell is a Research Fellow at PERC and an adjunct instructor at Montana State University where she has taught  introductory economics, macroeconomics, natural resources and environmental economics. She works with the Foundation for Teaching Economics, giving workshops for  high school teachers to improve their skills in teaching and...
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