Got a nice compliment from Headwaters Economics about last week's posting that profiled wilderness areas that Republican lawmakers have proposed for permanent protection.
Headwaters sent me a link to a research brief from Utah State University professors arguing that wilderness designations are a net economic loser for nearby counties, resulting in reduced per capita income, payrolls, and tax receipts. Headwaters came right back at 'em with a critique of the brief, pointing out analytical flaws and the countervailing, peer-reviewed evidence documenting the economic benefits of wilderness for nearby communities.
It's never a bad idea to push back against factions and interest groups pushing tiresome, discreditable arguments that conservation is bad for the economy. Never tire of pointing out that Arizona mining interests went berserk when Theodore Roosevelt invoked the Antiquities Act on a breathtaking scale to protect the Grand Canyon from mining. Now, Arizona proudly calls itself the Grand Canyon State to advertise one of the world's greatest tourist attractions. Roosevelt once said, "There is nothing more practical than the preservation of beauty."
There is a risk, however, in boiling arguments for wilderness preservation down to dollars and cents. Because if all wilderness advocates talk about is dollars and cents, then that's all people will think wilderness is. There is more to wilderness than drawing in visitors who can support local businesses, expand payrolls, and enlarge gateway communities' revenue bases, as important as those are. Wilderness is essential for all the reasons wilderness champions more eloquent than meHoward Zahniser, Wallace Stegner, John Saylor, Edward Abbeyhave stated before.
Wilderness enforces humility before the inscrutable mysteries of existence.
Wilderness teaches responsibility and self-reliance, because the forces at work in wilderness are indifferent to you and your pretensions.
Wilderness is a living connection to the history that shaped our culture and values.
Wilderness is democracy, owned by everyone and open to everyone, beggars and billionaires alike.
Wilderness is freedom.
That latter point might sound strange to ideologues who equate wilderness with overbearing government. Only in wilderness, however, can one find a respite, if only temporarily, from the madding crowd and the noise, regimentation, and pinging demands on our time and peace of mind that follow in its wake.
David Brower once said, "A world without wilderness is a cage." Edward Abbey once wrote, "Every square mile of range and desert saved from the strip miners, every river saved from the dam builders, every forest saved from the loggers, every swamp saved from the land speculators means another square mile saved for the play of human freedom."
Those who dismiss the freedom of wilderness ought to read a J.G. Ballard short story, The Concentration City (under $10 in his best-of collection on amazon.com), about a man who lives in the City, a dystopian urban agglomeration that encompasses all known existence and where the value of all known existence is priced by the cubic foot. The story's hero, Franz, searches for a dreamscape that his friend Gregson cannot conceptualize and insists cannot exist"free space."
Why can't free space exist? Franz asks his friend. Gregson replies: "It's self-contradictory. Like the statement, 'I am lying.' Just a verbal freak. Interesting theoretically, but it's pointless to press it for meaning." Gregson clinches his argument: "And anyway, do you know how much free space would cost?"
It would be priceless.
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