Wilderness Economics: A Model for the Future

by Jonathan Carter

Wilderness is a place where nature is allowed to reign free and the natural ecological processes are allowed to operate unfettered by human intervention and intrusion. It is a place where consumptive and motorized uses do not occur. John Loomis, an economics professor at Colorado State University, has pointed out that “the long term effects of diminishing wildlands is not just environmentally unfriendly, but it is economically unsound. Converting natural wealth into a one time benefit of corporate profits is a major swindle which should outrage all of us”.

Little Spencer Mountain. Photo © Jym St. Pierre.

Western civilization has promulgated the idea that wild places have no value unless they can be developed or their natural resources can be extracted. The notion that protecting the natural environment is antithetical to a vibrant economy is often used to frame the “jobs vs. the environment” debate. After all, how do you measure the value of clean air, fresh water, biodiversity and open space?

In the last several decades a new branch of economic analysis called Wildland Economics has emerged which has been able to quantify the value of wilderness. Wildland economists have dispelled the myth that “a good forest is a harvested forest”, and they have been able to demonstrate that the economic benefits from extraction industries are far less than the sustainable economies created by wilderness preservation. It is simply not true that families can not thrive, that jobs can not be created, and that communities can not be sustained by an economic engine fueled by wilderness. In fact, the maintenance and restoration of wilderness offers a great opportunity to spawn a new economic model. A model which is all about creating jobs and developing sustainable communities.

Wilderness as a “silent economic engine” pays in several ways. It directly generates jobs associated with non-consumptive uses and it attracts businesses due to the higher quality of life factor. In a passive sense, wilderness has a value in just existing. I may never visit the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but just knowing it is there and that I could visit it has value. Economists quantify this value by using a tool called “contingent valuation”. Contingent valuation uses polling data to determine what the average person would pay to keep wilderness pristine. Finally, wilderness has definable economic value for the services it provides. For example, it is possible to calculate the value of a forest’s air and water purification systems.

Economic Benefits of Restoring and Protecting Wilderness in Maine

All of us who live in Maine are aware of the economic disparity between the southern and northern parts of the state. In southern Maine we have seen an explosion of new businesses and job opportunities This rapid expansion, while improving economic conditions, has had its own set of negative impacts typical of uncontrolled growth.

In northern Maine the economic vitality has declined mostly as a result of the downturn in the forest products industry. For generations the forest products industry has been the dominant economic force. But times have changed, and those communities solely dependent on the forest products industry have experienced massive job loss and significant out-migration as workers and their families have sought opportunities elsewhere. Unfortunately, the end is not in sight. Thomas Power, an economist at the University of Montana, has determined that “forest products jobs can be expected to decline by about 30% per decade”. This translates into a loss of 7,600 jobs over the next ten years.

These patterns of job loss and out-migration are typical of populations with an over-reliance on extractive industries. It is painfully evident that the economic health of northern Maine will continue to decline until a new economy is established which is more diversified. This new diversified economy has the greatest chance of success if it is based on protecting and restoring the wilderness character of northern Maine.

Northern Maine needs to develop a diversified economy based on its unique characteristics and strengths. It is the region’s quality of life and the huge value of its ecosystem services which offers the best hope for the future. The northern forest of Maine makes up the largest contiguous area in the lower 48 states of undeveloped wildlands. Protecting these lands from the megalopolis sprawl moving up from the south is critical to the economic future of this region. By protecting and restoring this region Maine will be able to capitalize on its unique economic potential. The creation of the Maine Woods National Park and Preserve would be an excellent start for catalyzing the new economy for northern Maine.

What are some of the economic opportunities directly linked to protecting this region and creating a Maine Woods National Park and Preserve?

1. Ecosystem Services - The value filtered air and water provide by the northern forests is worth billions of dollars. In a recent study the estimated ecosystem value of the 6 million acres sold in Maine between 1998-2004 has a value of more than $600 million dollars per year.

2. Ecotourism - Maine’s north woods are within a days drive of over 80 million people. The current demand for non-consumptive outdoor activities(hiking, backpacking, canoeing, kayaking, wildlife watching) has skyrocketed in the last decade. Non-consumptive outdoor recreational activities are already contributing over one billion dollars a year to the Maine economy.

3. Economic Advantages - Wildlands cost less to service than developed lands. Studies have determined that the service cost to revenue ratio for open space is $034/$1.00 whereas for developed land it is $1.15/$1.00

4. Property Values - Protected lands result in higher property values in real estate in close proximity. When the New Jersey Pinelands National Reserve was created, property values increased by 35%. Lands close to the Green Mountain National Forest are 8% more valuable if they are near wilderness areas.

5. New Business Attraction - Quality of life plays a major role in attracting new, clean businesses. It has been estimated that the Maine Woods National Park and Preserve would generate as many 5100 new jobs as a result of new business and park services. In the last 30 years communities in close proximity to National Parks have experienced job growth three times the national average.

6. Income Growth - Declining wages have been a major component of the forest products industry decline. Real wages in and around Acadia have seen a $7000 increase in the last thirty years. Wages in areas next to National Parks have increased twice as fast as the national average.

It is clear that protecting and restoring Maine’s wilderness is key to creating a vital sustainable economy in northern Maine. It is equally clear that Plum Creek’s Wilderness Sprawl Proposal will undercut the future. The backbone to a sustainable economic future is in wilderness restoration and the creation of a landscape scale proposal like the Maine Woods National Park and Preserve, not the continued erosion of wildlands through sprawling development.

Selected Sources:

Power, T.M., 2001, The Economic Impact of the Proposed Maine Woods National Park and Preserve, RESTORE: The North Woods, The Economic Value of Protecting Wildlands 2004

Jonathan Carter is the director of the Forest Ecology Network, a Maine nonprofit conservation organization. This article was originally published in the Fall 2006 edition of The Maine Woods, a publication of the Forest Ecology Network.

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