America’s protected lands deliver the bucks

Tim Lydon
Writers on the Range

I recently joined friends for an excursion into western Prince William Sound, a federally protected Alaskan landscape. My friends work for land-management agencies, so naturally we do a lot of talking about public lands while recreating. A lot of talking.

But this time we found ourselves more focused on … money. It seems that if we want wilderness to survive, we’d better demonstrate its profitability. Fortunately, research shows that protected lands such as wilderness and national monuments generate big-time revenue.

We launched our trip from the port town of Whittier, whose 200 souls reside just nine miles by boat from a congressionally designated wilderness study area. The city’s bustling waterfront reveals a local economy powered by protected lands. To loosely quantify the effect, we counted local businesses whose fortunes are tied to the land.

We tallied four water taxis that bring hunters, campers, photographers and others to the area daily. And four kayak rental and tour companies, whose guides — like many across the American West — hardly know a day off in summer. They are among a whopping 26 guiding outfits in the area, most departing from Whittier.

Next, we counted five boats offering daily tours. None of their passengers step ashore, but each pays big bucks just to view protected lands. We also included the cruise ship towering over town after its excursion through a landscape managed to maintain its wilderness character.

“What about the marinas?” someone asked.

Whittier hosts two marinas and one boat-storage area. Hundreds of boaters keep everything from skiffs to ritzy yachts here, poised for turn-key weekends in the wild. Their families and friends pass through Whittier all summer. The marinas also berth commercial fishing boats, whose crews add to Whittier’s busy waterfront scene before heading to fishing grounds lying alongside — and benefitting from — protected lands.

The enterprises bring tens of thousands of annual visitors to Whittier. Their direct expenditures to access wild lands provide jobs and steady revenue for guides, boat crews and rental shops. Visitors also buy gas, bait, lunch, coffee and gifts, the retail core of local businesses. Additionally, the boats require parts and service and generate government revenue through registration and moorage fees.

Tendrils of commerce stretch to the hub city of Anchorage and beyond, with rental cars, charter buses, and additional lodging and dining linked to visiting Prince William Sound. We found ourselves echoing Thoreau and Leopold in a new and weird way — look, it’s all connected!

With this snapshot of sustainable economic activity, we departed for the land around Prince William Sound. For three days, we walked across scenic meadows, along salmon-choked streams, and through ancient forests haunted by eagles and ravens. We enjoyed the adventure, solitude and magic most of us associate with wilderness. But we also saw subtle business activity around us: a tour boat cruising past, a swarm of fishing boats at the mouth of a wild river, groups of kayakers camped on beaches beneath the icy Chugach Mountains.

At camp, a friend shared a story of bringing federal agency leaders on a tour of an Alaskan park. She discussed solitude, clean air, subsistence and other values, but her audience engaged most on economic factors. Maybe the topic doesn’t pluck at the heartstrings, we agreed, but it matters in an era of shrinking monuments and soaring park fees.

Recent reports from Utah, Montana and other states show national parks and monuments driving economic activity and visitors spending billions of dollars annually, supporting tens of thousands of jobs. In Alaska, economists profiled a billion-dollar tourism industry orbiting around parks and wilderness areas. They recommended preserving wilderness character on Alaska’s public lands to maintain their economic output. Imagine that.

America is on first-name terms with many communities thriving from their proximity to protected lands, including Moab, Whitefish and Jackson. But scores of less-familiar communities also benefit, with visitation fueling opportunity and government revenue in rural areas where making a living has never been easy.

Against this backdrop, the current administration hacks away at national monuments, and Congress acts to loosen rules and reduce public input on national forest logging. In Alaska, Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan misleadingly promise that drilling in the prized Arctic National Wildlife Refuge can help fund national tax cuts.

Who should benefit most from public lands? Small businesses and towns in rural communities at the edge of America’s best idea? Or international corporations out to unearth more dangerous carbon, benefitting a wealthy few?

For many people, protected areas provide an escape from commerce. But we should not ignore the dollar value of wilderness — a new kind of “fierce green fire” that today ignites rural economies.

Tim Lydon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News ( He writes in Alaska.


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