As a Matter of Fact, Money Does Grow on Trees
With an anti-environmental backlash inflicting one defeat after another on conservationists, a band of maverick economists is riding to the rescue with a startling revelation about the true value of our natural resources: Follow the money, and you end up in a very green place.
WHAT’S WILDERNESS WORTH?
What's Wilderness Worth?
What's Wilderness Worth?
What's Wilderness Worth?
For more than a century, the people who run America’s extractive industries—logging, mining, and fossil-fuel drilling—have offered one answer. Conservationists and the environmental movement have offered another. Developers have touted job creation and the connection between industrial exploitation and economic vitality. Environmentalists have grounded their appeals in ecological science and the value of wilderness to the human soul. Always at odds, locked in ideological opposition, the two sides, it seems, have long been speaking different languages.
Currently, with tens of millions of acres on the line and developers enjoying a stiff political tailwind blowing out of Washington, D.C., the mutual incomprehension has become nearly absolute. The environment reflects the red-state/blue-state divide and plays out in vitriolic debate.
Amid all the noise, both sides are failing to hear the whisper of a bold development that could break the deadlock and revolutionize sustainable environmental policy: the arrival of wilderness economics, a dollars-and-cents way to attach a fair and reliable estimate to the seemingly uncountable value of preserving wild spaces and pristine natural resources.
The lyrical phrases of John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and David Brower never came with dollar signs attached. They couldn’t. In bill and coin, nobody in those days could say what wilderness was worth. Now we can. Studies of rivers and lakes reveal that healthy watersheds provide millions of dollars’ worth of water filtration, just one of many such natural services critical for healthy communities. Researchers digging into the economy of the West are finding that forests often have a higher cash value standing than they have as cut timber. Small towns born as logging outposts now thrive as recreation gateways.
“Fifteen years ago we knew intuitively that cutting down these forests didn’t make sense,” says Bob Freimark, Pacific Northwest director of the Wilderness Society. “We couldn’t point to any economic studies to back us up. But not anymore.”
This new economic paradigm couldn’t arrive at a more crucial time. The failure of environmentalists to sell their agenda to voters has run headlong into an administration that’s put energy development at the top of its list and is making it easier than ever to siphon private resources from public land. While mainstream media have focused on hot spots like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Bush administration officials have quietly opened millions of acres of wilderness-quality land in the lower 48 to developers. Much of the 58.5 million acres of roadless national forest preserved by the Clinton administration will soon lose its protection. In Wyoming, ranchers who’ve wisely tended their land for generations are watching energy companies ruin their soil and water in a natural-gas free-for-all. In Utah and Colorado, nearly 150,000 acres of wildland—including previously protected sections of Desolation Canyon, as well as spectacular tracts of Sagebrush Pillows and the Dolores River Canyon—have been leased for drilling in the past 14 months. Tens of thousands more will likely follow.
President George W. Bush and his supporters defend these actions in the name of energy security and jobs. But set against the West’s new economic reality—a long-term shift away from extractive industries and toward recreation, tourism, the service sector, and information technology—the aggressive drive to cut and drill without factoring in long-term effects on the value of public wildland isn’t just environmentally unfriendly; it’s economically unsound. Converting the natural wealth contained in the nation’s pristine forests, deserts, canyons, and mesas into a one-time hit of corporate profit is a swindle of the first order, one that should outrage anyone, Republican or Democrat, who favors combining sound business practices with smart environmental stewardship.
Fortunately, the new way of thinking, if embraced by both sides, could lead to an era of compromise, in which decisions about extraction and preservation are based on assessments of long-term value, and of how that value might or might not be sacrificed for short-term gains.
If that happens, we’ll owe thanks to people like John Loomis, 52, an economics professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at Colorado State University in Fort Collins and one of the pioneer thinkers in wilderness valuation. Loomis has written dozens of papers showing that mining, logging, drilling, and grazing are rarely the most economically beneficial uses of public land. His personal revelation came 28 years ago, in 1977, shortly after the young Cal State Northridge graduate took a job with the federal government’s Bureau of Land Management, which put him to work in the slickrock canyons around Moab.
“My second week on the job,” Loomis recalls, “the Forest Service held a public hearing. About three-quarters of the people there said they didn’t want any wilderness in Utah, period. And I thought, Now wait a minute. Surely there’s some economic value in wilderness.” Along with a handful of like-minded colleagues scattered around the West, Loomis would spend the next quarter-century proving that there is.
$72 AN ACRE
Wilderness economics may not be the last word in the conservation argument, but it’s taken on considerable weight, given the alacrity and scale with which the White House is rolling back wilderness protection. If the current wilderness land grab had an emblematic moment, it was the morning of November 24, 2003. I was on hand that day when the federal government—dramatically reversing long-standing precedent—took a chunk of protected land (acreage that the BLM itself had identified as having “wilderness characteristics,” and that was part of the proposed 9.5-million-acre Red Rock Wilderness) and auctioned it off to oil and gas developers.
“Parcel number 26 is the next one we’re offering,” the auctioneer called out to the 22 land men—agents for oil and gas companies—who had assembled inside a BLM conference room in Salt Lake City. “Minimum bid: two dollars to start.”
Auctions like this are, in themselves, nothing new. Since the 1920s, private companies have acquired the right to drill on public land for as little as $2 an acre. Currently there are 94,000 wells on public property and Indian reservations, producing 11 percent of America’s natural gas and 5 percent of our oil.
But Parcel 26 was different. Behind its sale lay nearly three years of legal maneuvering at the top levels of the Interior Department. After chafing under two terms of President Bill Clinton’s conservationist policies, industry executives and Bush appointees came into office determined to ramp up the industrial use of public land. In their way stood two things: Clinton’s Roadless Area Conservation Rule, adopted by the Forest Service in January 2001, and the de facto wilderness protections installed on BLM land in 1999 by then–Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.
The roadless rule halted the taxpayer-subsidized construction of new roads on the most pristine 58.5 million acres of national forest. (There are currently 436,000 miles of roads on the nation’s 192 million acres of national forests and grasslands.) Because the rule came late in Clinton’s term, President Bush—just minutes after taking the oath of office in January 2001—was able to temporarily freeze its implementation. By the end of 2004, the White House had eliminated roadless protection for much of Alaska’s 17-million-acre Tongass National Forest and had rewritten the rule in a way that all but ensured that roadless protections would never take effect in the nation’s other national forests.
Opening up protected BLM wildlands to oil and gas developers has proven trickier. The BLM oversees 261 million acres, almost all of which is in the West. Most of that land is open to oil and gas drilling, but 6.5 million acres are protected as congressionally authorized wilderness areas, and 15.5 million are held as wilderness study areas (WSA), meaning the land is off limits to development pending further evaluation.
Based on state-by-state inventories conducted over the past two decades, environmental groups claim that the BLM manages an additional 12 million acres of wilderness-quality land not protected in either WSAs or formal wilderness areas, including several million in Utah. In 1996, prompted by conservationists, Bruce Babbitt told BLM managers to re-inventory the agency’s Utah holdings. And if you find that it’s wilderness, he told them, manage it as wilderness. The process took three years, but in 1999 the BLM acknowledged that it held more than 2.6 million additional acres of wilderness-quality land and gave it protected status.
The Bush administration, with Babbitt’s successor, Gale Norton, leading the charge, was determined to reverse that policy. From 2001 to 2003, Norton and Interior officials secretly negotiated a deal with Utah state officials—including then-governor Mike Leavitt, who later became Bush’s EPA administrator—to remove the wilderness restrictions.
Norton’s April 11, 2003, announcement stunned wilderness advocates. Not only had the deal wiped out the BLM’s 2.6 million acres of “managed wilderness” in Utah; it also prohibited the BLM from expanding its WSA inventory. In any state. Ever.
Seven months later, on November 24, 2003, the first of the previously protected BLM parcels was put up for lease in Salt Lake City. After the auction, I caught up with the man who had placed the winning bid to lease Parcel 26 and two other pieces of Desolation Canyon. (In about five minutes he’d leased 4,700 acres for $340,000.) His name was Joe Thames, and he was there on behalf of Baseline Minerals Inc., a minerals-brokerage firm based in Denver. Because land men like Thames often represent third-party buyers, I asked whom he’d purchased the lease for.
“I’m not able to disclose that,” he said. I asked why there was so much interest in the Desolation Canyon property.
“I’d rather not say.” With that, Thames turned and left. Three pieces of Utah wilderness disappeared with him.
Joe Thames’s money wasn’t theoretical; he wrote a check to the American taxpayers for $340,000. But is that the whole story? If Baseline Minerals builds a natural-gas well and runs a road into Desolation Canyon (when this issue went to press, no development had yet taken place on this land), the development could threaten the $1.5 million annual revenue generated by the rafting industry on Desolation’s Green River. Moreover, this land couldn’t qualify for full wilderness protection.
Is that worth $340,000? Or did the BLM just sell a piece of Utah’s economic future far too cheaply?
THE SILENT ENGINE
To some, it might seem pretty cut-and-dried: the value of leaving beautiful but “worthless” wilderness alone versus the potential for jobs, profits, and the prospect of reducing America’s dependence on foreign sources of energy. Oil companies might mess up the landscape, but that’s forgotten come payday. Wilderness advocates don’t cut checks, and a man can’t feed his family on scenery.
That’s the old line, anyway, but it’s not as convincing anymore. A reversal of that conventional wisdom began taking shape in the early nineties, following the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. Shortly after the disaster, economists working for the state of Alaska calculated a fair estimate, in dollars, of the spill’s damage. They used a number of then-controversial methods like “contingent valuation,” which relies on polling data to estimate what the average citizen would pay to keep, say, Glacier National Park protected from destruction. Using such measures, the economists came up with a damage estimate: $3 billion.
Many of the theories, methods, and benchmarks used to produce the Valdez estimate didn’t just emerge overnight. They were part of a 30-year-old work in progress by economists based in various academic outposts in the West—among them, Loomis, at Colorado State; Thomas Power, at the University of Montana; Gundars Rudzitis, at the University of Idaho; Gretchen Daily, at Stanford; and Ed Whitelaw, at the University of Oregon. Though the Valdez brought some publicity to what these thinkers were doing, their ideas didn’t significantly influence national policy until 1999, when President Clinton first proposed the roadless rule.
“The timber industry launched an economic salvo against the roadless rule early on,” recalls Ken Rait, a wilderness activist and former director of the Heritage Forests Campaign, a Washington, D.C.–based coalition of environmental groups that lobbied in favor of the rule. “They said it would condemn the future of rural economies. We knew they were flat-out wrong. So we brought John Loomis on to look into it.”
Building on previous research that calculated everything from the spending average of wilderness visitors ($30 a day) to the value of roadless areas for scientific research (about $5 million a year), Loomis and Robert Richardson, a doctoral student at CSU, produced a study with impressive numbers. They found that wilderness pays primarily in three ways: direct income from recreational use and as a quality-of-life benefit to lure new businesses and residents; passive-use value (what it’s worth to maintain the opportunity to visit wilderness, or to pass that opportunity on to future generations); and “ecosystem services,” natural processes like the air- and water-purification functions of an undisturbed forest.
They estimated that the 42 million acres of roadless forest in the contiguous U.S. supported 24,000 jobs and provided nearly $600 million in annual recreation benefits. Passive-use values added another $280 million per year.
And then they came to the ecosystem-services figures. The idea of ecosystem services came of age in the mid-nineties, when academics like Stanford’s Gretchen Daily and the University of Vermont’s Robert Costanza argued that forests and other ecosystems provided billions in indirect benefits. The question they asked was simple: How much would it cost to replace these natural systems with an artificial device?
They answered it by extrapolating from real-world examples. In 1989, for instance, EPA officials ordered the City of New York to build a water-filtration plant that would cost $8 billion to construct and $300 million a year to operate. Instead, the city spent $2 billion to restore and protect its Catskill Mountains watershed, letting a healthy 2,000-square-mile forest do the work of an $8 billion industrial plant. Estimated value of water filtration provided by the watershed: $6 billion and counting.
Ecosystem services remained a little-known idea until 1997, when Costanza and 12 colleagues published the mother of all estimates, the value of the entire planet’s ecosystem services: $33 trillion per year. The number, published in the journal Nature, seemed all the more astonishing when compared with the 1997 gross world product (the combined output of every nation), which was $18 trillion.
Applying the idea to the roadless rule, Loomis and Richardson pegged the ecosystem services of that acreage at between $1 billion and $1.5 billion. This brought their estimate of the total value of the 42 million roadless acres to a whopping $1.88 billion to $2.38 billion. The projected value of harvesting timber from that same swath of land? Some 730 temporary jobs and $184 million in lumber revenue.
The wilderness-economics numbers tend to be ignored or dismissed out of hand in the Bush administration’s push to restore extraction-is-king priorities. Yet the figures for recreation alone are stunning. In 1995, U.S. Forest Service economists took stock of the agency’s land and found that national forests generated $125 billion a year in economic activity. Recreation accounted for 75 percent of that figure. Timber and mining made up 15 percent.
“When I first quoted those figures, people in the agency couldn’t believe it,” recalls Jim Lyons, the Department of Agriculture’s undersecretary for natural resources and environment in the Clinton administration. “Jack Ward Thomas, the Forest Service chief at the time, looked at me and said, ‘Where’d you get that from?’ But this was our own report, and it tracked a shift that had been happening for a long time. Recreation, not timber, is the Forest Service’s main product.”
“Wilderness,” adds Peter Morton, an economist with the Wilderness Society, “is the silent engine of the West’s economy.”
WILD SKY DOLLARS
Good jobs in the rural West once came predominantly from sawmills, ranches, and mines. The numbers now tell a different story. Thirty years ago the “cowboy economy”—mining, agriculture, timber, oil, and ranching—accounted for 20 percent of the rural West’s economy. Now it’s about 8 percent. From 1970 to 2000, nearly all of the income growth in the West came in the producer-service fields—engineering, design, finance, and the like—and from spending by retirees.
“Most people’s understanding of the economy lags about 20 years behind reality,” says Ray Rasker, an economist with the Sonoran Institute, a conservation group in Tucson, Arizona. “It’s a tough perception to change, because the new economy is often invisible.”
Rasker is one of a number of western economists tracking what he and others call the “lifestyle dividend,” the idea that protected wildlands act as strong economic lures. As the University of Oregon’s Whitelaw explains it, “Firms that compete nationally for highly skilled, highly educated employees can pay a little bit less than the national rate, because people are willing to trade off a little of their dollar wage for the nature wage.”
That trend is only increasing as jobs become less tied to site-specific factories and offices. The rise of e-mail, overnight delivery, and cheap long-distance rates means population loss for Buffalo, population gain for Bozeman. Rasker summed this up in a July 2004 Sonoran Institute study: “The more dependent a state’s economy is on personal income earned from people who work in the resource extractive industries,” he wrote, “the slower the growth rate of the economy as a whole.”
You can see these patterns playing out all over the West. Towns like Bend, Oregon, near Mount Bachelor and the Deschutes River, and Bishop, California, nestled in the eastern Sierra, have already transitioned from timber and mining towns, respectively, into recreation hotbeds. Kem Hunter, former mayor of Index, Washington, in the Cascade Range, is pushing Congress to pass the Wild Sky Wilderness proposal, which would protect the national-forest land that surrounds the town and draws kayakers, climbers, and campers from Seattle.
“The wilderness area will attract visitors who spend money,” says Hunter. “Our logging and mining jobs are decades gone. We need sustainable jobs, and those are tied to outdoor recreation.”
No case study is more persuasive than Kane County, Utah, about 210 miles south of Salt Lake City. Kane County, home to the Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument, has been the site of one of Utah’s most intense wilderness battles. It started in 1996, when Bill Clinton’s creation of the 1.7-million-acre monument made him as popular in Kane County as a Yankee fan in Fenway. A Dutch-owned mining company was considering opening a coal mine on the monument’s remote, grassy Kaiparowits Plateau, and locals expected the mine to boost the economy. When the monument designation scotched that plan, predictions of economic doom rang through the county seat of Kanab, population 4,500.
Last year, Ray Rasker went to Kane County to see if the monument had crippled the local economy. It hadn’t. In fact, Kane County was thriving. Rasker compared data from the four years prior to the monument’s creation (1992–1996) with data from the four years after. During the latter period, the unemployment rate in Kane County dropped by more than half, while labor income rose faster than it had in the pre-monument period. Per-job earnings, which fell 7 percent before the monument, rose 13 percent after it was created. Property values rose significantly, too. “People in Kane County worried that all they’d get were low-wage tourism jobs,” Rasker told me. “In fact, the average wage per job went up.”
What accounted for the turnaround? “Word got out,” says Rasker. “People read about Grand Staircase–Escalante. Some started visiting; others moved their businesses to Kanab or decided to retire in Kane County.”
Those new retirees spurred growth in health-care jobs. Recreation boomed. Since the monument was created, hotel-room revenue has increased on average about 20 percent.
If the numbers are so obvious to economists like Rasker and Loomis, why aren’t they driving land-management policy in the West? That’s simple: politics. The Bush administration simply doesn’t acknowledge that these ideas have much value, and environmentalists have not done a good job of convincing policymakers otherwise.
For that matter, even the Clinton administration seemed reluctant to go too far with wilderness economics. A funny thing happened when Clinton’s final roadless rule was published in the Federal Register, on January 12, 2001, eight days before Bush took office. The rule’s cost-benefit analysis, in which the Forest Service laid out its economic justification, describes nearly all the economic advantages mentioned by Loomis and Richardson’s study. But remember their grand tally of $1.88 billion to $2.38 billion? That was left out.
There were, however, numbers attached to what the rule would cost: the 730 timber jobs and the $184 million in lost income. Though the numbers Loomis and Richardson came up with were accepted by economists, they were still considered too theoretical in the legal and political worlds.
“We wanted to identify the positive benefits of the rule,” says Chris Wood, a Trout Unlimited conservation expert who, in 2000, helped write the roadless rule as an adviser to Mike Dombeck, Clinton’s Forest Service chief. “But there just wasn’t broad unanimity about how to do that kind of economic analysis. Rather than risk having the rule struck down on a technicality, we qualitatively described the benefits without putting a hard number on them.”
The Bush administration wasted no time using the missing numbers against the rule. A few months after Bush suspended it, the White House budget office declared it economically inefficient and targeted it for elimination. The office listed its costs at $184 million in timber-related income, the benefit at a mere $219,000—the savings realized by not having to maintain new roads. All other values, from recreation to water quality, were ignored.
To get a sense of how these numbers sat with the Bush administration, I spoke with Mark Rey, Bush’s point man on the roadless rule. A former timber lobbyist, Rey oversees the Forest Service as the Department of Agriculture’s undersecretary for natural resources and environment. In a phone interview, he made it clear that he’s aware of the economic studies conducted by people like Loomis. But he said, in effect, that some numbers are stronger than others.
“Recreation benefits are pretty well established in terms of methodology,” he said. “As you move out to passive values, those are more theoretical.”
The question wilderness economists don’t address, said Rey, is the extent to which the championing of one benefit reduces or eliminates others. “In the case of the roadless rule, if you’re going to restrict particular uses from certain areas”—that is, eliminate logging in roadless areas— “you clearly are diminishing that particular economic benefit. But the converse is not always the case.”
In other words, allowing a timber harvest on certain portions of a national forest doesn’t entirely eliminate its recreation value or all of its ecosystem services.
“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,” said Rey. “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.”
Did Rey mean these new valuations are helpful tools but shouldn’t be considered in a winner-take-all kind of way?
“If it becomes a winner-take-all proposition,” Rey said, choosing his words carefully, “I think recreation users will regret the day it was framed that way.”
Rey has a point: Both resource extraction and wilderness economics bring impressive numbers to the table (oil on BLM land and Indian reservations, for example, generated roughly $4.6 billion in 2003), and wilderness economics shouldn’t be used as an argument to block extraction altogether. The problem is, Rey’s actions—and the actions of other Bush officials—belie the professed interest in balanced use. The Bush administration is managing America’s wild spaces as a moneymaker for a few politically favored industries—timber, mining, oil, and gas—opening protected lands helter-skelter without considering an increasingly important set of numbers.
The new paradigm, however, is making some progress on Capitol Hill. In Congress, the economic argument is being used by a group called the Green Scissors Caucus to bring together environmentalists and conservatives to eliminate wasteful, environmentally harmful government programs. “So many false arguments are made about how environmental protection is pitted against jobs,” says Representative Earl Blumenauer, a Democrat from Oregon who cofounded the caucus in 2003. “The fact is, we pay a lot of money for programs that diminish our environment and our quality of life.”
Passing environmentally friendly legislation during the Bush era is “a tough slog,” Blumenauer says, but attacking the issue from a government-waste angle is proving fruitful. The Green Scissors initiative has “cut more than $26 billion so far,” says Ohio Republican and caucus cofounder Representative Steve Chabot, including a wetland-killing highway in Virginia and a seashore-eroding jetty in North Carolina. The caucus has inspired a conservative like Chabot, a low scorer on the League of Conservation Voters’ environmental scorecard, to speak out against the Forest Service’s waste of taxpayer money to build logging roads for the timber industry.
“Economics shouldn’t be separated from environmental protection, yet that’s what we’ve traditionally done,” says Blumenauer. “There’s a cost attached to air pollution, and it’s paid by people who breathe and recreate. The biggest challenge now is finding a way to properly value those environmental elements.”
NUMBERS AND STORIES
True enough, and here’s the good news: We already have the means to place a fair value on environmental elements. There may not be a stock exchange for trading wilderness futures, but that doesn’t mean its worth can’t be measured.
“Imagine your arm was severed by a faulty product,” says John Loomis. “You’d sue the manufacturer. How much is your arm worth? There’s no market for that. But that doesn’t mean we drop the case. We work with the data we have and come up with a reasonable estimate.”
It seems like an odd inversion—greens basing their case on dollars and cents—but it needs to happen, and it’s starting to. In May 2003, Peter Metcalf, CEO of Salt Lake City–based Black Diamond Equipment, a manufacturer of climbing gear, protested Gale Norton’s wilderness-killing deal by proposing that his industry move its twice-yearly convention, the Outdoor Retailer trade show, out of Salt Lake City, a decision that would have cost the city $24 million in annual revenue. A longtime climber, Metcalf had never expressed his love for wilderness in monetary terms.
“But then I thought, Wait a minute. Money does matter,” Metcalf told me. “And it’s on our side.”
“Wild and undeveloped places are the economic backbone of the outdoor recreation industry,” Metcalf wrote in a Salt Lake Tribune opinion piece, where he called upon politicians to “recognize the economic values of public lands as a top priority, not a secondary consideration.”
The threat stirred then-governor Leavitt to form a statewide task force to identify and promote the state’s “wildland gems.” (Peter Metcalf was one of its first appointed members.) Leavitt’s successor, Olene Walker, later created a plan to break Utah’s wilderness stalemate by having county-based committees nominate land for full federal protection. The Outdoor Retailer show stayed in Salt Lake City, and the Outdoor Industry Association mounted a “Business for Wilderness” campaign to protect roadless areas and western wildlands.
“When he was confronted with that economic message, Leavitt felt compelled to respond,” says Scott Groene, director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the state’s leading wilderness-advocacy group. “This discussion is usually presented as wilderness versus jobs. That was the first time we had an honest discussion about wilderness plus jobs.”
Without those discussions, people whose businesses depend on healthy rivers and forests will be left to hang. Just talk to Larry McQuarrie, a self-described “supporter of responsible timber harvest” who owns the Sportsman’s Cove Lodge, in Saltery Cove, Alaska, a fishing lodge on the eastern shore of Prince of Wales Island, bordered by the Tongass National Forest.
Talk about out-of-whack economics: In 2002, the Forest Service recorded a net loss of $35 million in the Tongass on timber sales that supported just 195 jobs. That’s a subsidy of $179,000 per job. Saltery Cove is a place where the battle over the roadless rule hits hard: Since the Bush administration scuttled the rule in the Tongass, the forest around Sportsman’s Cove Lodge has been slated for harvesting. If that happens, McQuarrie may lose his drinking water to contamination. At the very least, he’ll be left with a fishing lodge surrounded by a clear-cut, which isn’t the most enticing scene to put on a brochure. Logging the cove would produce an estimated $400,000 in annual wages for five years. McQuarrie’s payroll, by contrast, tops $500,000 every year, in perpetuity. And he does it with no Forest Service subsidy.
Or talk to Tim Alpers, a third-generation rancher in California’s eastern Sierra who makes his living raising trophy trout. Alpers is a Republican and a conservationist whose economic survival depends on unspoiled wilderness. Without the cool, clear stream that runs through his property, his fish would die. Without the weekend fishermen driving up from Los Angeles, his business would die.
Karl Rappold, who runs Black Angus cattle on 13,000 acres along Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front, also understands the value of wildlands. When the Bush administration proposed leasing federal land near Rappold’s ranch for natural-gas development four years ago, Rappold became a born-again wilderness advocate. “This land has hardly changed since Lewis and Clark came through,” he told me. “I want to see it stay the way it is, without industrialization.”
Here’s the kicker: Rappold’s protest worked. Because the message came from a traditionally Republican base (ranchers like Rappold, along with fishing and hunting advocates, opposed the expanded drilling plan), the Bush administration announced last October that it would shelve the proposal—at least for now.
This is the new story of the West. Conservation is now as much about economics as it is about less tangible aspects like the solace of open space. And it’s not just about the West: These arguments can also play out in African wildlife habitats or Central American jungles. Wilderness is a commodity that no longer just tugs at the heartstrings. It’s become abundantly clear that it tugs at the purse strings, too.