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Economic Benefits and Costs of Wilderness

There is an astounding shortage of academic studies that analyze the negative economic impacts of environmental policies.  Anyone who has ever worked for an industry that has been decimated by the stroke of a pen knows full well the damage that can result from the reckless pursuit of radical environmental policy.  Nevertheless, many regulations that are proposed and adopted in the name of saving the planet solicit the best scientific and commercial data to inform the decision that is being made.  As federal agencies propose new rules they are quick to identify science that supports what they want to do, and the commercial data that would indicate the economic costs of wilderness, endangered species listings, etc. is always lacking.

For this reason, any time I can find a study that spells out the economic costs of environmentalism, its findings need to be promoted.  I recently found a study on environmentaltrends.org, that examines the economic costs of wilderness designations.

While it is worth reading the study, these findings speak for themselves:

Measure of Economic Condition Economic Impact
Average Household Income $-1446.06
Total Payroll $-37,500.00
County Tax Receipts $-92,910.00

The following summary of the findings is also quite telling:

The argument often stated by the environmental community that Wilderness is good for local economies is simply not supported by the data. When comparing Wilderness and Non-Wilderness Counties, Wilderness Counties are at an economic disadvantage to their Non-Wilderness counterparts. Accordingly, if the test for whether or not to designate Wilderness is economic, Wilderness fails. But economics did not underlie the Wilderness Act or any of the Wilderness Areas established since the Act was passed. Wilderness is established for emotional, ecological, and cultural purposes. Our results show that those purposes are accomplished at a cost to local economies.

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. As noted, 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 tourists than Wilderness on Bureau of Land Management or National Forest Service lands.

Finally, it is probable that the location of Wilderness has an impact on the direction and magnitude of its economic impact. Phillips (2004), for instance, found that Wilderness designation in the Green Mountains of Vermont had a positive impact on private land values in that area of Vermont. We should assume that some Wilderness can, in fact, have positive economic impacts, even though our findings indicate that this is not the general rule.

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. The benefits and costs from Wilderness are unevenly distributed between local and non-local communities, with local communities incurring a larger burden of the costs. This provides a good reason why local officials often rally against and adamantly oppose Wilderness.

Ultimately, being aware of studies like this is only half of the battle.  Once we are armed with great facts like this, we need to use them when we comment on proposed regulations and when we interact with environmental organizations that are quick to tout the largely non-existent economic benefits of scarcity driven policies.

About Miles Mason

Miles Mason
I am a deconstructeur of modern environmentalism and its destructive regulatory aftermath. I am fully committed to popularizing the post-scarcity mindset and laying the ideological foundation for an abundance economy.

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