Boon or bust: wilderness designation and local economies.

Author:Yonk, Ryan M.
  1. Introduction

    In 2008, a supermajority of the Utah State Legislature passed House Joint Resolution 10, which encouraged the United States Congress to not designate any additional federal wilderness areas in Utah. The resolution asserted that Utah relies on public lands for crucial economic activities including "oil and natural gas development, mining, outdoor recreation and other multiple uses, rights of way for transportation, waterlines, electric transmission, and telecommunication lines." The Utah State Legislature claimed that limiting these multiple uses of public lands would result in substantial economic hardship for the state. By passing the resolution, the legislature echoed the belief of many local elected officials and residents that wilderness designations are not good for local economies. (1)

    In direct contrast to this view, many people (especially in the environmental community) have alleged that large federal land holdings and protected areas such as wilderness generate economic growth. The Wilderness Society, a conservation organization focused on protecting US wildlands, notes that "designated wilderness areas on public lands generate a range of economic benefits for individuals, communities, and the nation--among them, the attraction and retention of residents and businesses" (2004, p. 1). The Sonoran Institute, a conservation group focused on preserving the natural environment in the North American West, similarly finds that "protected natural places are vital economic assets for those local economies in the West that are prospering the most" (Rasker, van den Noort, and Carter 2004, p. ii). The institute further notes, "Wilderness, National Parks, National Monuments, and other protected public lands, set aside for their wild land characteristics, can and do play an important role in stimulating economic growth--and the more protected, the better" (Rasker, van den Noort, and Carter 2004, p. 1).

    This paper investigates the conflicting beliefs regarding the economic impacts of federally designated wilderness through empirical statistical analysis of the economic conditions present in wilderness and nonwilderness counties over time. (2) Using US census data for all counties across the United States, we study the impact of wilderness by looking for an identifiable difference within the economies of wilderness and nonwilderness counties. We define wilderness counties as counties that contain any portion of a federally designated wilderness area. Such federally designated wilderness includes lands designated pursuant to the Wilderness Act of 1964 and managed by one of four federal agencies: the US Forest Service, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the US National Park Service (NPS), and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

    We do not examine wilderness study areas (WSAs) and other de facto wilderness, such as designated roadless areas inside national forests and property managed to maintain "wilderness characteristics" by the BLM. We also do not consider protected areas designated and managed by states as primitive areas. Our decision to include these areas was based on the variation in both the borders of these areas and the way that they are managed. Often, the boundaries for WSA, de facto wilderness, and primitive areas are not well defined, making their use as a variable a liability.

    When controlling for other federally held land and other factors impacting economic conditions, our statistical analysis shows that a federal wilderness designation significantly impacts county economic conditions. This effect, however, does not occur in the direction typically argued by conservationists. We find an economically significant negative relationship between the presence of wilderness and median household income and total payroll. Our study suggests that the presence of wilderness in a county decreases the median household income by $496 and decreases total nonfarm payroll by $124,200. Thus, there may be some justification for local political elites and residents to be concerned about new wilderness designations.

    The paper proceeds as follows: Section 2 provides background on the issues surrounding wilderness. Section 3 provides an introduction to federally designated wilderness and surveys the existing literature on the economic impacts of wilderness. Section 4 lays out our methods and explains the data used. Section 5 presents our results, while section 6 contains our analysis and conclusions.

  2. Federally Designated Wilderness

    Beginning in the late 1800s, the US government began setting aside portions of federal land under varying degrees of protection. These efforts resulted in the establishment of the National Park System in 1887 with the creation of Yellowstone National Park (now managed by the NPS, which was created in 1916). Additionally, the National Forest programs started in 1891 through the establishment of the Yellowstone Timberland Reserve (now the Shoshone National Forest). Through the creation of Devil's Tower National Monument in 1906 a national monuments system was also created. Then, in 1940, the US Fish and Wildlife Service was created through the merger of the Bureaus of Fisheries and Biological Survey. Six years later, the BLM was created "to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations." (3)

    The identified statutory purposes of each of these types of land reservations anticipated some degree of human use. Indeed, the US Forest Service is part of the United States Department of Agriculture because of the efforts of Gifford Pinchot, the first director of the US Forest Service. He wanted to preserve and promote the national forests for the production of timber throughout the United States, something he considered to be an agricultural, not preservationist, activity. The other large land management agencies (the BLM, NPS, and FWS) are all housed in the Department of the Interior.

    Although lands managed by the federal agencies received a great deal of protection, some preservationists and conservationists argued that these designations did not sufficiently preserve the wild characteristics found in those lands. These concerns led to early designations of "wilderness" within certain forest reserves. The first of these, created along with the Gila National Forest in New Mexico in 1924, set aside some 700,000 acres to be preserved as wildlands in perpetuity. The setting aside of lands continued, and by the 1930s, over twenty such wilderness areas had been created. Managing these areas was left to regional administrators, who chose in some cases to allow grazing, logging, and road building. Even parts of the Gila Wilderness were opened to broader use in the 1940s and 1950s (Coggins, Wilkinson, and Leshy 1993).

    Upon the urging of conservationists and preservationists, Congress turned its attention in 1964 to the issue of preserving wildlands in perpetuity through passing the Wilderness Act, in which Congress defined wilderness as

    an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this chapter an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value (16 USCA [section] 1131[c)].

    Because the Wilderness Act mandated preserving areas "untrammeled by man," a variety of activities are expressly forbidden within wilderness areas. Roads, road construction, and any mechanized travel are prohibited within wilderness areas. Although mining claims were allowed for the first twenty years after the Wilderness Act passed, mining and mineral exploration are now prohibited within wilderness areas. Even when mining and mineral exploration and extraction were allowed, the controlling agencies granted almost no mineral leases, indicating a general unwillingness of federal administrators to allow mining despite the de jure allowance of such leases.

    Similarly, while logging was not expressly proscribed by the act's statutory language, the restrictions on mechanized travel, mechanized equipment like chainsaws, and road construction generally preclude large-scale logging activity (Coggins, Wilkinson, and Leshy 1993). A review of the act's legislative history further indicates that Congress intended to prohibit logging activity in wilderness areas with one exception--the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota. Grazing is expressly allowed in wilderness areas, but administrators are allowed to make "reasonable...

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