Wilderness as economic stimulus? A closer look at the evidence

There are many good reasons to love wilderness. The Wilderness Act, which passed 50 years ago this year, describes several of them: outstanding opportunities for solitude, primitive and unconfined recreation experiences, and the preservation of special places "where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man."

As a former wilderness ranger, these values resonate with me. More than 100 million acres of land have been designated as "wilderness" since 1964, and in my view they include some of the most spectacular landscapes imaginable.

But as hard-fought wilderness bills languish in Congress, some are claiming there's another reason to love wilderness areas – they're good for local economies.

This economic argument is a central part of wilderness advocacy today. Protecting lands from development, many say, provides a much-needed boost to rural communities. These lands attract workers, entrepreneurs and investors across all sectors while boosting income and employment in surrounding areas.

But what does the research actually say about the economic effects of wilderness designations? I took a close look at the peer-reviewed academic research and found few rigorous studies and little evidence to support the claim that wilderness leads to economic stimulus. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, consider what the best available research says.

First off, there is disagreement on how natural amenities such as wilderness should affect economic outcomes in theory. On the one hand, wilderness designations limit resource development and could hinder income and employment in extractive industries. On the other hand, wilderness could improve quality of life and attract new businesses, migrants and tourists. Adding to the confusion, there is evidence that workers might accept lower wages, longer periods of unemployment and higher land prices to live in areas rich in natural amenities such as wilderness.

So there's confusion about the theory, but what do existing studies find when they look at the data? In short, not much. The first empirical study, published in 1998, found no evidence that wilderness had an effect on employment or population growth in Western counties during the 1980s. A similar study in 1999 found no effect of wilderness on income, population or employment growth in rural counties in several Western states. Two more studies in 2002 and 2003 were no different: Wilderness had no effect on employment or wage growth.

More recent studies come to similar conclusions. A study in 2006 by Ray Rasker of Headwaters Economics champions the role that public lands play in stimulating income growth in the West, but a closer look reveals that he is unable to demonstrate a statistically significant effect associated with wilderness lands. Another study by Rasker and his colleagues, published in 2013, emphasizes that protected public lands (including wilderness) had a small positive relationship with three measures of income. Less obvious was the fact that seven other economic measures they examined had zero effect.

So what about the popular claim that wilderness drives economic growth? Studies that reach this conclusion are based on simple correlations. None are rigorous enough to suggest that wilderness causes growth. Two studies that are often cited — one by Paul Lorah and Rob Southwick in 2003 and another by Patrick Holmes and Walter Hecox in 2004 — report a positive correlation from wilderness and population, income and employment growth. But once additional factors are controlled for in more detailed studies, these positive relationships disappear.

More research is needed to better understand the effects of wilderness. But a critical look at the existing studies makes this much clear: There is little or no evidence that wilderness bolsters economic growth. When environmentalists invoke economic arguments to support wilderness, they are exaggerating the best-available research and undermining other more compelling wilderness values.

Wilderness advocates shouldn't hang their hats on economic arguments. There are plenty of good reasons to love wilderness areas — but there's just no evidence that economic arguments are one of them.

Regan is a research fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) in Bozeman, Mont., and a former backcountry ranger for the National Park Service.