Huntsman Post

USU Professor Testifies About Impact of Designated Wilderness Areas

Brian Steed

Photo by Sterling Morris

Randy Simmons

Photo by Sterling Morris

By Connor Child

A researcher and instructor at the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business recently testified before Congress about research conducted at Utah State University and Southern Utah University on the local economic impacts of designating Wilderness areas.

Brian Steed, a proposal development specialist and instructor of economics, received the invitation to testify after presenting the research to the Western Caucus, a joint group made up of members and staff of the House of Representatives and the Senate. After the presentation, staff from the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands asked Brian to provide written and oral testimony for Congress about the results of a study he and the other two economists conducted. Brian worked on the study with Randy Simmons of the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business and Ryan Yonk of Southern Utah University.

“What we found is that there is not always a universally positive economic impact to local communities when nearby land becomes a designated Wilderness area,” Brian said. “As in all things in economics, there are tradeoffs – you may be giving up a lot of potential economic uses for land when it becomes Wilderness.”

A land area “untrammeled by man” can become a designated Wilderness area as a result of the Wilderness Act of 1964. Wilderness, Brian said, is the most restrictive of all federal land-use designations. The Wilderness designation prohibits roads, mechanized travel, and extractive industries such as mining, logging, and grazing.

In 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded Brian, Randy, and Ryan a grant to investigate the relationship between designated Wilderness areas and local economic conditions. As part of the study, they examined average household income, total payroll, and county tax receipts in every county in the United States. After controlling for other factors influencing county economic conditions, they found that counties with the Wilderness designation had lower per capita income, lower total payroll, and lower total tax receipts than was the case before the designation was made.

While there are obvious benefits to Wilderness designations, Brian said, policy makers should carefully consider the tradeoffs before making any further designations. He also said policy makers could minimize the costs to local populations by seeking input from local land users when making land-use decisions.

“I hope our study spawns a broader discussion about both the costs and the benefits of Wilderness,” Brian said. “It was never my intent to go against Wilderness areas. I love Wilderness, and I am not anti-Wilderness in any way. But I hope that we can play a role in creating a national conversation about who wins and who loses when these areas are designated. Nothing is ever always good or always bad.”

The three researchers who conducted the study were recently featured in a blog entry on the New York Times “Green” blog. The full version of their study can be found here, and a condensed version can be found here. Brian’s testimony can be found here.