No. 88 Whither Wilderness? How Much Is Enough?

Published December 1, 1998

Quick Links

Increasing wilderness area “set-asides” is seen by many to be the best way to ensure the future well-being of both the land and humanity. Opposing this view are most land managers, who are concerned that the need for forest products will not be met if lands are increasingly set aside solely for recreational enjoyment. This Heartland Policy Study suggests that further additions to the National Wilderness Preservation System are unnecessary to preserve existent ecosystems, would contribute little to public recreation, and can be detrimental to the nation’s economy.

1. The U.S. has vast wilderness resources.

Roughly one-third of the total land area of the United State is “wilderness” by some definition of the term. The congressionally set-aside National Wilderness Preservation System–what rigid environmentalists generally mean when they refer to wilderness–consists of nearly 104 million acres, 95 percent of it west of the Mississippi River. About one-fifth of the states have designated an additional 5 million acres to wilderness use. An additional 123 million acres of federal lands and 30 million acres of state and private lands are “remote” (more than three miles from a road); and over 87 million acres of federally owned land and 35 million of state-owned land are “backcountry” (between 0.5 and three miles from a road).

Wilderness is also in private hands. Industry owns 483 million acres of forest in the U.S., much of it open for recreation. The Nature Conservancy has established 2,866 preserves totaling 2.68 million acres, the world’s largest system of privately held reserves. Ducks Unlimited has projects affecting nearly half-a-million acres in all 50 states.

Recent estimates show that municipal and county facilities (parks, forest preserves, etc.) account for about 60 percent of recreational use, state lands about 14 percent, private lands also about 14 percent, and federal lands a mere 12 percent of all such outdoor activity.

2. “Wilderness” is a subjective concept, not a scientific term.

Author Roderick Nash contends that wilderness has never existed. “We act as if wilderness were real–rocks, trees, canyons, mountains–but it actually is a state of mind evoked by a state of nature, a quality associated by some people with some places. Wilderness–like beauty–is in the eyes of the beholder.”

Many environmentalists identify mature forests as the kind of vegetation that would prevail in the absence of logging and other types of human interference. But this vision of vast expanses of unbroken old-growth forest is a myth. Humans have been changing the natural landscape of America since before Columbus. The landscape witnessed by early American settlers was “artificial” in the sense that it was the result of prior large-scale human interventions including the use of fire, planting crops, and hunting.

Biological diversity is produced naturally by wildfire, blowdowns, insects, and disease, and caused by human actions such as clear-cutting, selective harvesting, and replanting. Forests in different stages of development are more or less suited to the needs of different kinds of wildlife; no one stage is “better” or “more natural” than any other. There is no scientific basis for labeling some of these stages “wilderness” and others “not wilderness.”

3. Current wilderness set-asides are sufficient to support other values as well.

Recreation. The lands of the National Wilderness Preservation System are one of many places for beholders to experience wilderness recreation. But much of that system is too remote from population centers or too foreboding for consistent use. The NWPS lands best suit the purists, a small, youthful, and affluent sector of society. Far greater numbers seek more readily accessible areas, perceived as wild but likely to have at least some developed facilities. By far, most people resort to less pristine recreational facilities located fairly close to roads and home.

Ecosystem preservation. Wilderness areas may contain rare or endangered plant or animal species as well as plants of now-unknown genetic, medicinal, or nutritional usefulness. This is no rationale for preserving ecosystems, however, since benign neglect–about the only biotic management legal in the NWPS–ordinarily is ineffective as a preservation technique.

Scientific research and teaching. The need to set aside remote wilderness areas as classrooms for students and scientists seems a plausible reason to designate wilderness areas . . . until one attempts to actually use such a place for a classroom. Remoteness, severely limited access, prohibitions on the use of motor vehicles and vegetative treatments, as well as the need to protect the solitude of recreationists, all work to severely limit the value of the NWPS for research and teaching. Experimental forests and natural areas designated for research provide far better environs for most teaching and research.

Therapy. Wilderness therapy camps sometimes are recommended for troubled and out-of-control teenagers. But this approach is costly, at about $15,000 for a two-month course; produces inconclusive results; and is not without risk. Moreover, these programs are not wilderness-dependent–that is, they do not require designated wilderness (the NWPS) to achieve their objectives.

Spiritual and vicarious values. A view of wilderness as “divine” has evolved slowly among Americans, an outgrowth of the 1960s’ counter-culture and the pantheism, gnosticism, eco-religion, deep ecology, and Gaia worship that followed. But the exercise of such spirituality seems possible on many wildlands alternative to and less extensive than the NWPS. Given the 11-fold expansion of the NWPS, is there evidence that vicarious users and worshipers find 11 times more satisfaction in it?

4. Wilderness set-asides are costly for taxpayers and the economy.

The estimated direct cost to American taxpayers of NWPS lands administered by the Forest Service, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management exceeds $110 million annually. That figure excludes the cost of land acquisition, on which the federal government spends enormous sums. In September 1996, for example, it paid $380 million for 3,425 acres of old-growth redwood forest in northern California; in December 1997, it paid $133.5 million for a 50,000-acre addition to Florida’s Everglades National Park.

Setting aside land as wilderness also means a loss of jobs, tax revenues, and commodity values for nearby communities. Loss of income and tax base can be acute, especially in western states, where vast areas of publicly owned timber are already held in preserved status. Forests of the Pacific northwest may well be the world’s most productive timberlands, but nearly half are off-limits to harvest, ostensibly preserved forever as wilderness, park, or other outdoor museum. About half of the redwood forest in California is similarly off-limits.

Of Washington state’s total timber, 27 percent is in some form of preserved status; in Oregon, fully 60 percent is protected. In 1988, 490 sawmill, pulp, plywood, panel, and veneer mills operated in those two states. Today, well over half of them (305) are closed for lack of timber; with jobs and products lost, many rural communities are in disarray.

Wilderness set-asides also result in lost access to other natural resources. President Clinton’s creation of a 1.7 million-acre national monument in southern Utah has denied the nation access to 62 billion tons of low-sulfur coal, 2 to 3 billion barrels of oil, and 2 to 4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The 19 million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), in which development is currently prohibited, may hold recoverable oil reserves of up to 9.2 billion barrels. ANWR development could raise U.S. gross domestic product by $50.4 billion and create 735,000 jobs nationwide.

5. Science, professional expertise, and economics should guide our use of wildlands.

Wildernists consistently win in their battle with other users, in large part because of the greater power of special interest groups. They are tightly organized, with politically astute leadership having the funds, interest, time, and ability to bring pressure to bear on Congress and other legislative bodies. The 11-fold increase in the NWPS amply evidences the collective wealth, media influence, political acumen, and legislative clout of the wildernist lobby.

Wilderness preservation is an easy sell to affluent Americans. The psychological effects of separating Americans from their land and its resources make some Americans vulnerable to emotional appeals aimed at removing forests and other lands from productive use. Wildernists cannot make a case based on sound science for radically changing current forestry practices or for setting aside still larger areas of wilderness for preservation. The very definition of wilderness is profoundly subjective: Calls for more of it are based on urban esthetics, dubious science, quasi-religious appeals, and even outright falsehood.

It should never be overlooked that forests do one thing no other land use can accomplish–they produce wood. Wood is an immensely useful substance, readily renewable and completely biodegradable; its production expends less energy and causes less long-term environmental stress than the production of any other plant fiber or construction material.

Professionally managed forests may produce wood alone or, in the usual case, some combination of wood, grazing, water, minerals, and recreation. Management is key to protecting the resource base while satisfying as many commodity and amenity needs as land, funding, and manpower permit. A century ago, single-minded emphasis on the production of wood led to serious environmental consequences. Today, heavy emphasis on the amenity values also may lead to serious environmental consequences, the predictable results of forest neglect.

Based on Heartland Policy Study #89, “Whither Wilderness? How Much Is Enough?” by James H. Patric and Raymond L. Harbin. Copies are available from The Heartland Institute for $10 each. Printed copies are available from The Heartland Institute for $10 each. You can also download the full text, free of charge, in Adobe’s PDF format; click here.


Copyright 1998. The Heartland Institute. Nothing in this Executive Summary should be construed as reflecting the views of The Heartland Institute, nor as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation. Permission is hereby given to reprint or quote from this Executive Summary; please send tearsheets to The Heartland Institute, 19 South LaSalle Street #903, Chicago, Illinois 60603.

Questions? Call us at 312/377-4000; fax 312/377-5000; email [email protected]; Web