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.
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.
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.
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.
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.