What's Wilderness Worth?

Thu May 19, 2005 5:03 PM EDT

In the March edition of Outside magazine, Bruce Barcott writes that wilderness is finally getting the price tag it deserves. While conventional wisdom has held that a forest isn't worth any more the resources you can extract from it, the argument advanced by Barcott, one which has been working its way through the environmental ranks for years, is that forests are usually worth far more standing up than on the backs of trucks.

As Barcott writes, Clinton's 1999 roadless rule proposal—affecting 42 million acres of National Forest—provided one of the first large-scale opportunities to showcase the new thinking. Economists used a four-part framework to estimate the value of creating the rule: direct income from recreational use; quality of life benefits (luring in businesses and residents), passive use value (preserving worth for future generations), and "ecosystem services" such as air- and water-purification. Using this framework, the "intact" value of the land was estimated at between $1.88-2.38 billion, while logging came in at a paltry $184 million.

While the financial power of this line of thinking has been gaining broad acceptance among economists, forest managers, and others who are realize the potential benefits of preserving the natural state of the land, there is genuine concern that an environmental reliance on economics—which seems attractive when pitted against timber—may not always lead to desirable consequences. Says Mark Rey, who oversees the National Forests for the Bush administration:

The dialogue we need to have is whether all those uses of our national forests are compatible with one another, not whether recreation is two or three times the value of timber receipts or whether oil and gas are two to three times recreation receipts. If we get into that debate, then we're probably going to end up making a compelling case for a lot more drilling in the national forests. And that's not the case we want to make.

The point? Economic justification alone is a poor metric for gauging the health and value of public land. If we're going to play a numbers game with this argument, its got to be one with foresight—whatever we can justify taking in economic terms has to be able to sustain the natural resource value of the land in perpetuity. Without such an ethic, the dividing lines between public and private land cease to exist.

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