What is Wilderness Worth?

In 1964, Congress protected areas where, according to the Wilderness Act, “the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Wilderness areas now cover approximately 5 percent of the United States – over 100 million acres.

While the ecological and aesthetic value of these lands is apparent, their economic value is less intuitive. In a review article published in the Journal of Forestry, U.S. Forest Service scientist Thomas Holmes and his colleagues describe the concepts and tools used to analyze the economic value of wilderness. The scientists considered historical studies to identify trends in the use and economic value of wilderness areas as well as the economic impacts that wilderness areas have on gateway communities.

“Once resources are extracted from a wilderness area, wilderness character is irreversibly changed and can never be reproduced,” says Holmes. “This is why it is important to consider the trade-offs inherent in developing wild areas. People are often surprised to learn that the economic value of protecting wilderness areas can exceed the economic value of developing those areas.”

Economists have proposed that people generally become willing to pay more for wilderness protection and use as their income and education increases. Combined with the increasing scarcity of wild lands relative to other land uses, economists have argued that wilderness values will trend upwards as economies develop. Holmes and his colleagues reviewed the economic literature to discern trends in the economic value of wilderness. “Our review suggests that wilderness areas are becoming increasingly valuable to society over time,” says Holmes.

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