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Frequently Asked Questions: Wilderness Economics

How has wilderness affected Utah’s economy?

In 1986, 3.2 million acres of BLM lands in Utah were set aside to be managed as de facto wilderness. In addition to these formally protected Wilderness Study Areas, 5.9 million additional acres which possess wilderness characteristics exist throughout the southern and western regions of Utah.

Despite the extent of protected and unprotected but still pristine areas in southern and western Utah, the economies of rural communities have experienced growth in both total and per capita income. The mineral industries have down-sized as a result of decreased demand for uranium and petroleum products, but the growing service sector has more than made up the difference.

In fact, the future of Utah’s economy lies in preservation of its wild lands and quality of life, as opposed to promotion of an economy based upon extractive industries. This is thoroughly discussed and substantiated by Dr. Thomas Power in his testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives. This testimony, titled "The Economics of Wilderness Preservation in Utah" is presented in the winter 1995 issue of the SUWA newsletter.

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How popular is wilderness?

In Utah, a survey conducted by a BYU professor asked how much money residents personally would be willing to pay to preserve Wilderness Areas. People on average supported "additional wilderness designation" to a degree of 8 to 10 million acres, or approximately 15% of the state of Utah. Utahns would be willing to spend up to $38 million a year on wilderness preservation! Eighty-six percent of Utahns say it is "very important" or "important" to preserve pristine, unique, and natural areas of Utah as wilderness. Seventy-nine percent would support legislation to increase the amount of wilderness areas.

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What is the economic impact of wilderness designation?

Global economic trends, including changes in energy markets, increased automation in mining and agriculture, improved transportation, and increased demand for services, are changing the employment patterns throughout the United States, including rural Utah.

To blame wilderness for declining employment in ranching and mining is to ignore reality. Since areas that are currently being used by extractive industries are roaded and are therefore not eligible for wilderness designation, no current jobs will be lost if over 9 million acres are designated. In addition, livestock grazing is permitted in wilderness.

The truth is that rural Utah counties that have become booming economies, such as Grand and Washington, are growing because the public land, open space, and scenery provide the setting for a healthy tourist industry with an influx of people who want to live in such a spectacular setting. Preserving the natural values of existing wild places will provide the basis for sustainable economies in the nearby communities.

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Is mining important to Utah’s economy?

Currently, the mining sector employs only about 1% of Utah’s work force; the Utah Office of Planning and Budget predicts employment will remain at 1% throughout the early part of the next century. In the past 10 years, earnings income from mining has dropped, statewide, from 5% to 2%. The main reason for this drop is the fluctuation nature of the global market for coal, oil, and uranium, and increased mechanization in the minerals industry. The backbone of Utah’s mineral economy rests in northern Utah (copper production), central Utah 9coal production), and the Aneth field and Uintah Basin (oil and gas production), not in regions proposed for wilderness designation.

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Will wilderness do away with mining jobs?

Wilderness designation will not result in any losses of existing mining jobs, since wilderness cannot be designated in lands currently disturbed to the level of being mined.

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Won’t wilderness destroy the mining economy?

In 1992, the U.S. General Accounting Office released a study, which found that there have been no credible studies to document potentially adverse impacts in Utah from wilderness designation. The Utah Office of Planning and Budget has produced a study, which, under the most realistic scenario, shows a positive economic impact in Utah from wilderness designation. Economic trends have demonstrated that communities surrounded by wild lands exhibit growing economies.

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What about agriculture?

The agricultural sector’s contribution of 1.4% to Utah’s total earnings has been unaffected by the protection of wilderness study areas.

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What about livestock grazing?

Damage caused by livestock grazing must be dealt with regardless of whether an area is designated as wilderness. The Department of the Interior predicts an 18% drop in forage authorization on BLM lands over the next twenty years even under current multiple-use grazing policies. In Utah, grazing on federal lands now contributes just eight hundredths of one percent of the state’s total income, according to a study by Thomas Power, University of Montana Economics Department Chair. Public lands grazing, while still a significant environmental issue, plays an increasingly small economic role in the West.

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What has happened at the county level?

In 1980, San Juan County’s mining sector employed 36% of the total jobs in the county. However, by 1988 mining employment had dropped to less that one half of one percent, due to collapse of uranium and petroleum prices. The sociological ramifications of this boom and bust extractive industry economy make rural community stability nearly impossible. During the same period, however, the service sector nearly doubled to 17%. Garfield County commissioners argue against wilderness because of potential economic impacts on the county’s mineral sector. However, the mining sector currently employs fewer than 25 people.

When mining employment numbers dropped due to the global energy market in the 1980s, total and per capita personal income rebounded through growth in services. According to the Utah Office of Planning and Budget, Garfield County had a 17% dependency on tourism, the highest of any county in Utah. In Washington County, one of Utah’s fastest growing regions, total and per capita personal income are rising as a direct result of tremendous growth in the service sector.

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