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Economic Benefits of Wilderness

Monte Matheson, an angler and hunter from Port Orford, Oregon
The Port Orford/North Curry County Chamber of Commerce supported designation of the Copper Salmon Wilderness in 2009 because fishermen from all over the country come to fish for salmon in the waters of the Elk River. Restaurants, motels, R.V. parks, grocery stores, hardware stores, art galleries, advertisers, and fishing guides all benefit from this eco-based winter tourist industry during what are often the hardest months of their economic year.
One myth about wilderness is that it imposes economic costs on local communities. This idea is often embodied in the 'jobs vs. environment' argument suggesting that there is an inherent tradeoff between economic prosperity and strong environmental protection. In fact, wilderness areas protect the environment and have a positive effect on local economics because they benefit local businesses and their employees, create revenue through recreation dollars, increase property values, and provide invaluable ecosystem services to nearby cities.

Rural areas endowed with natural resource amenities, like wilderness, experience higher regional economic growth rates[1], and the more public lands a county has, or the closer it is to protected lands, the faster the economic growth[2]. Recent studies of western counties and states have shown that population, income, and employment growth increased as the percentage of wilderness increased, and the West's popular national parks, monuments, wilderness areas and other public lands offer its growing high-tech and services industries a competitive advantage[3][4]. Proximity to wilderness is therefore an important reason why, in another study, 45% of long-time residents and 60% of recent migrants lived in or moved to counties containing wilderness[5].

Businesses also choose to locate in areas near wilderness and other public lands, bringing with them employees and jobs. In a study of business location decisions, businesses ranked scenic beauty, desire for a rural setting, and outdoor recreation opportunities far above labor costs and tax incentives as key reasons for locating or relocating in areas rich in protected landscapes[6]. In another study, more people (7% more than previously surveyed) indicated that providing better income for the tourist industry was an important benefit of wilderness[7].

Outdoor gear retail store
Of the $730 billion that the outdoor recreation economy generates, 40% is from retail gear sales and trips, including those led by outfitters and guides[8].
Outdoor recreation businesses, in particular, reap the economic benefits of wilderness and other public lands. A recent study found that the outdoor recreation economy--which includes revenues and expenditures related to activities like hiking, climbing, camping, paddling, bicycling, hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing and snow sports--supports 6.1 million jobs, generates $80 billion in annual tax revenue, and results in $646 million in annual spending, making it one of America's most important employment sectors[8].

Other research concludes that proximity to wilderness increases property values, and land prices decrease with distance from a wilderness boundary[9][10]. For example, the per-acre price of residential land near Vermont's Green Mountain National Forest (which contained six wilderness areas at the time of the calculations) was almost 19% higher in townships containing wilderness, and land prices decreased by 0.33% with every kilometer (six tenths of a mile) farther from a wilderness boundary[9].

Wilderness areas also provide a variety of other off-site benefits including ecosystem services such as watershed protection, water filtering, carbon sequestration, nutrient cycling and fish/wildlife habitat. The Forest Service, for example, suggests that one out of every five American's gets their water from wilderness[11]. One study estimates the monetary value of wilderness ecosystem services, including watershed protection and water filtering, to be $2-$3.4 billion annually[12]. Other off-site values, however, are much harder to quantify with accurate figures for their worth. Passive (option, existance, bequest), scientific, healthcare, and educational values of wilderness often lack formal markets used to determine their value through current prices. Simply because breathtaking viewsheds or scientific knowledge, for example, are not priced or priced consistently does not mean they lack value, only that market indicators of value do not exist or are not reliable predictors of worth.


  1. Deller, S. C., Tsai, T., Marcouiller, D. W & English, D. B. K. (2001). The Role of Amenities and Quality of Life In Rural Economic Growth. Amer. J. Agr. Econ. 83(2), 352–365.
  2. Rasker, R., Alexander, B., van den Noort, J., & Carter, J. (2004). Prosperity in the 21st Century West: The Role of Protected Public Lands. Tucson, AZ: Sonoran Institute. Retrieved on September 14, 2009.
  3. Holmes, F.P. & Hecox, W.E. (2004). Does Wilderness Impoverish Rural Regions? International Journal of Wilderness, 10(3), 34-39. Retrieved on June 22, 2012.
  4. Headwaters Economics. (2012). West Is Best: Protected Lands Promote Jobs and Higher Incomes. Bozeman, MT: Headwaters Economics. Retrieved on March 11, 2013.
  5. Rudzitis, G. & Johansen, H. (1991). How Important is Wilderness? Results from a United States Survey. Environmental Management, 15(2), 227-233.
  6. Johnson, J.D. & Rasker, R. (1995). The Role of Economic and Quality of Life Values in Rural Business Location. Journal of Rural Studies, 11(4), 405-416.
  7. Cordell, H. K., Beltz, C. J., Fly, J. M., Mou, S. & Green, G. T. (2008). How Do Americans View Wilderness? Retrieved on July 16, 2009.
  8. Outdoor Industry Foundation. (2006). The Active Outdoor Recreation Economy. Boulder, CO: Outdoor Industry Foundation. Retrieved June 22, 2012.
  9. Phillips, S. (2004). Windfalls for Wilderness: Land Protection and Land Value in the Green Mountains. (Doctoral dissertation, Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University, 2004). UMI No. 3241159.
  10. Wilderness Society, The. (2004). The Economic Benefits of Wilderness: Focus on Property Value Enhancement. Retrieved on July 31, 2009.
  11. Sedell, J., et al. (2000). Water and the Forest Service. FS-660. USDA Forest Service, Washington, DC.
  12. Loomis, J.B. & Richardson, R. (2001). Economic Values of the U.S. Wilderness System: Research Evidence to Date and Questions for the Future. International Journal of Wilderness, 7(1), 31-34.

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