Green equals more green: The economic benefits of wilderness

Wildflowers at Carrizo Plain in California. Photo by Alan Scheirmier.

One of our biggest priorities at The Wilderness Society this fall is pressing Congress to pass more than 20 wilderness and wildlands bills that await action before a new Congress is sworn in next year.

These new wildlands protections will ensure that amazing iconic American lands in 12 different states are forever preserved, but one challenge in ensuring their passage is dispelling the all too common misperception that wilderness protection locks up resources.

What every citizen should really know — and let their Congressional representatives know as well — is that protection of wilderness and wildllands actually bolsters economic health for nearby communities.

Since passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964, economists have expanded and refined their methods for determining the total economic benefits of wilderness. By using a framework that accounts for all the values of wilderness, including non-market environmental values, it becomes clear that wilderness is an important economic resource that provides multiple benefits to the current generation as well as future ones.

At a minimum we know that the many U.S. counties that gained federal wilderness protections in 2009 fared as well in terms of employment as their counterparts did during the recent economic downturn.

Money and jobs from recreation

Women enjoying a waterfall in Glacier National Park, Montana. Photo by Jeff L. Fox.People visit wilderness areas to go camping, fishing, hiking, climbing, and engage in other recreational activities. Not only do these visits provide economic value to the visitors, but they also generate economic benefits for nearby communities. In an article published in the International Journal of Wilderness, for example, economists John Loomis and Robert Richardson estimated that every 10,000 additional acres of wilderness in the eastern U.S. adds to 11,000 visitor-days per year and generates 18 jobs in local economies.

Wilderness areas support local economic development

When businesses make decisions about where to locate, one of the things they consider is the potential workforce. Wilderness near rural communities helps make these places attractive for people to live and work, attracting an educated, creative workforce. Wilderness amenities such as the scenic backdrop, recreation opportunities and wildlife also attract retirees who bring income and business opportunities to rural areas.

Enhanced property value

Another way in which the economic value of wilderness shows itself is through increased property values for lands near designated wilderness — the myriad benefits of wilderness are capitalized into land prices. Wilderness Society economist Spencer Phillips studied this phenomenon as part of his doctoral research and found that properties closer to wilderness are significantly more valuable than those farther away. People are, not surprisingly, willing to pay more for scenic views, proximity to recreational opportunities, protection from unsightly development, and other benefits of wilderness.

Ecosystem services

Wilderness areas are also particularly good at providing valuable “ecosystem services.” These benefits of nature include providing clean drinking water, sequestering carbon and otherwise regulating climate, as well as harboring recreational, scientific and aesthetic values. Healthy forests in wilderness areas can slow water runoff and, combined with sufficient flood plains, they protect against flooding. Without this natural flood prevention, governments, private individuals, and firms will bear the cost of building and maintaining engineering structures and storm water infrastructure — or of paying to repair damage when floods do come. And many cities near wilderness are well aware that these lands help purify their drinking water supplies, reducing costs and improving quality at the same time.

Since Wilderness provides these services for free, it can be easy to overlook them, but the value is there, and should be counted among the economic benefits of wilderness protection.

Wilderness provides value even when we don’t “use” it

People benefit from wilderness even if they never set foot in it or even see it. People may want the option of visiting or using wild places in the future, of passing the option on to future generations, or simply knowing that those places exist in a natural state. And they often express a willingness to pay to preserve those options and that knowledge. When you add up that benefit for all of the people for whom wilderness areas are so valued, the economic worth can be huge. One recent estimate of this value for just the wilderness in the Lower 48 (about one half of the National Wilderness Preservation System) is $7.5 billion.

Learn more in our science reports on the economic benefits of wilderness under "Related Content" below.

Wildflowers at Carrizo Plain in California. Photo by Alan Scheirmier.
Women enjoying a waterfall in Glacier National Park, Montana. Photo by Jeff L. Fox.