The Ferris Mountains wilderness study area in south-central Wyoming. Headwaters Economics says communities connected to wild areas draw critical economic development. (photo courtesy of U.S. Bureau of Land Management — click to enlarge)

Wilderness at 50: Understanding its role in today’s economy

Guest column by Ray Rasker
— October 14, 2014

At the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, it is encouraging to learn that lands set aside for conservation can also have tremendous economic value. Wild places are key to attracting entrepreneurs, as well as a tidal wave of retiring Baby Boomers. And, more obviously, wild places create jobs in outdoor recreation, now a $646 billion industry.

Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters Economics.

 Simply put, people care about quality landscapes and it influences where they live, play, and do business.

A number of studies bear this out. For example, non-metro western counties have, on average, a per capita income $4,360 higher for every 100,000 acres of protected public lands.

But a question for today’s policy makers remains: will the protection of wild places on public lands — in the form of Wilderness, national parks, wildlife refuges, and national monuments — automatically lead to economic well-being?

The answer depends largely on location. In big cities, the effect of protected lands is difficult to measure because these economies are too complex to measure the effect of one variable. In remote rural counties there is a positive association, yet there is little job growth because beautiful landscapes by themselves are not enough; good schools, medical facilities, and access to markets also are needed.

The sweet spot are counties with a rural, scenic setting and with a nearby airport with daily service to major cities. In these “connected” counties there is a measurable positive association between Wilderness, national parks and other protected lands and economic well-being.

These places include Jackson, Wyoming; Bend, Oregon; Bozeman, Montana; Durango; Colorado; Flagstaff, Arizona and others like them — places that in the last few decades have been discovered and redeveloped because they are wonderful places to live and do business.

Since 1970 the vast majority of new jobs has been created in service industries, and the race is on to capture the high-wage component of this growth. Communities with protected public lands have a competitive advantage in attracting the engineers, architects, software developers, doctors, lawyers, researchers, and others.

More than 100 economists, including three Nobel laureates, sent a letter to President Obama to ask for increased protection of public lands. They stated the situation like this: “Increasingly, entrepreneurs are basing their business location decisions on the quality of life in an area. Businesses are recruiting talented employees by promoting access to beautiful, nearby public lands. This is happening in western cities and rural areas alike.”

In addition, the big trend to watch is the retiring Baby Boomers. Their investment, retirement and other age-related payments now account for 41 percent of personal income among counties in the West, and 60 percent of net new personal income in the last decade. This money in turn stimulates health care, construction, and other sectors. According to USDA’s Economic Research Service, members of this so-called Baby Boomer tsunami consistently migrate to counties with high natural amenities.

Americans clearly care about quality landscapes. A survey from earlier this year found that “69 percent of Westerners are more likely to vote for a candidate who supports protections for some public lands.”

While the economic role of protected lands is not the same in all places, 50 years after the first federal Wilderness, protected lands still matter and play an important economic role.

 — Ray Rasker, Ph.D., is the Executive Director of Headwaters Economics in Bozeman, Montana.

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  1. The critical word in this well-written piece is “association”. There is a positive association between protected areas and economic well-being, not a cause and effect relationship. That is, protected areas are often found near areas with high economic well-being, not that protected areas cause high economic well-being. It is an important relationship to understand that creating protected areas does not by default create a positive economic benefit.

    In the last decade or more many groups have done an excellent job informing the public that the economic impact of protecting public lands is significant. However, in the ongoing battle between different uses for public land in the West, the economic argument does not favor protection over development. If you look at GPD data for metropolitan areas on the US Department of Commerce website (http://bea.gov/regional/index.htm) you can compare Flagstaff, a city in Dr. Rasker’s “sweet-spot”, to Casper. Casper’s GDP in 2013 was $7.5 billion and Flagstaff’s was $5.2 billion. On a per capita basis Casper’s GDP is 66% greater.

    If economic benefits are the desired result of public land use it is clearly better to develop a resource rich area like the Powder River Basin, than to protect a breathtaking natural wonder like the Grand Canyon. I don’t point this out to say that every acre of public land should be developed for maximum economic benefit. I think our protected public lands are a large part of the reason the West is the best place in the world to live. Rather I argue against the other extreme which believes that all public lands should be protected. Public lands should be places of multiple uses, and I think on the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act we’ve struck a good balance between development and protection.