The Economic Impact of Preserving
Washington’s Roadless National Forests

by Thomas Michael Power, Ph.D.
Professor of Economics, University of Montana

Chapter 4
The Economic Value of Protected Natural Landscapes

A. Economic Vitality in the Face of Dramatic Declines in Federal Timber Harvests

Although counties adjacent to National Forests in eastern Washington are often described as "distressed," and this distress is partially blamed on the failure of National Forest to allow as high a level of harvest as they once did, many of these counties show every sign of being healthy and vital. Okanogan provides a good example. It is one of the most isolated of Washington's counties in terms of its distance from metropolitan areas and lack of an interstate highway link to anywhere. Yet during the 1990s, despite a 82 percent decline in federal harvests, Okanogan County saw employment expand faster than the state as a whole and 50 percent faster than the nation as a whole. Its population grew right along with the state's, at twice the nation's rate. Total income adjusted for inflation expanded by almost a quarter, fifty percent faster than the nation. Average income rose steadily at the national rate and three times faster than Washington's other nonmetropolitan counties. See Table 4.1.

Chelan, Asotin, Walla Walla, Clark, Spokane and Lincoln are other "National Forest" or adjacent counties that saw average incomes rise at about the national rate and several times faster the Washington's other rural counties. Some of the counties where average real income rose only slowly were not stagnating in any sense. Average income is calculated by dividing total income by population. If population grows more rapidly than total income, average income tends to fall. When that population growth is tied primarily to immigration that takes place despite the fact that economic opportunity is not expanding as rapidly as population, we have to be careful how we characterize local well-being. People voting with their feet are saying one thing while the statistics appear to be saying another. Consider Kittitas County where population grew by 18 percent, almost three times as fast as nonmetropolitan areas in the nation and significantly faster than the state's population. Since real income grew only by 20 percent, just a little faster than population, average income only increased 1.6 percent during the 1990s. Something was drawing people to Kittitas County despite the slow growth in average real income.

The same could be said for Stevens County in the Northeast. Population expanded by 26 percent, almost four times faster than the national rate and twice the state's rate. Because real income grew at about the same rate, average income increased very little in real terms. Ferry, Klickitat, Skamania, Lewis, and Yakima all had population growth rates similar to the state as a whole and well above the national rate, had total real income grow substantially, at about the national rate. But the combination of these two led average incomes to grow slowly, if at all. The rapid growth in population, employment, and total income reflect significant economic vitality despite the slow growth in average income. All but two of the eastern Washington National Forest counties experienced significant population growth, growth above the national rate, during the time period that federal harvests were plummeting. The declining harvests were not driving people out of those counties because of lack of economic opportunity. The two counties with the slowest growth rates were counties with little or no wood products employment and significant agricultural sectors; i.e., Columbia and Garfield.


It is true that average incomes in these National Forest counties are well below the state average. That is one of the reasons that they are classified as "distressed" by the State government. It is important to keep in mind that Washington's average income is dominated by the incomes earned in the Puget Sound metropolitan area and other large urban centers in the state. The state average income is 95 percent of the average metropolitan income in the state. The average nonmetropolitan income is only 75 percent of the state average. That is why almost all nonmetropolitan counties are classified as "distressed." When the nonmetropolitan National Forest counties on which we have been focused are compared to other nonmetropolitan counties in Washington or the nation, they appear to be doing as well as or better than other counties that are not dominated by large cities. See Figure 4.1.

This pattern of nonmetropolitan areas having lower average incomes is a nationwide pattern. Average income rises systematically with the size of place in which people live, the larger the city the higher the income. Before jumping to the conclusion that this is evidence that people living in smaller cities and rural areas are economically deprived, one has to answer the question of why population growth in Washington's "poor" nonmetropolitan counties was faster than in the metropolitan counties. That is, if Washington's nonmetropolitan counties were 28 percent poorer than the metropolitan counties, if each man, woman, and child had almost $8,000 less per year to support themselves, why were people, on net, choosing to reside in the "poorer" locations rather than moving the opposite direction: abandoning the nonmetropolitan areas for the metropolitan areas where their incomes could be almost 30 percent higher, for a family of three, almost $24,000 a year higher! The pattern of people voting with their feet in Washington and across the West and the US suggests that there is something about living in the nonmetropolitan areas that more than compensates people for the lower average incomes. It is to a discussion of that "hidden" "second paycheck" (1) to which the study now turns.

B. The Economic Value of Natural Amenities: More Than Just Tourism

An "economic base" approach to the local economy focuses attention almost exclusively on the way in which the presence of commercially valuable local resources can stimulate specialized, export-oriented, economic activity. In that economic base context, protecting natural landscapes by restricting commercial activity such as logging necessarily has a negative impact on the local economy. That is the primary objection raised to protecting Washington's remaining roadless areas. The exception to this negative economic view of wildland protection, in an economic base context, is the tourism that protected natural landscapes may draw to an area. Tourism, however, is only one of the connections between protected natural areas and local economic well-being. Protected natural areas assure a flow of valuable environmental services directly to residents in the surrounding area. Recall Figure 1.1. In addition, because that flow of valuable environmental services, protected natural areas make adjacent areas more attractive as places to live, work, and do business. In that way, protected natural areas contribute directly to local economic development.

It needs to be emphasized that protected natural landscapes are not a drag on local economies. The environmental services provided by protected natural landscapes, wildlife, outdoor recreation, scenic beauty, air and water quality, etc. play an important economic role in adjacent communities. During the last half-century the federal and state governments have increasingly recognized the importance of protecting unique natural landscapes. As a result, wilderness areas, national and state parks, wildlife refuges, and other protected natural areas have been established. If the extension of protection to these natural areas regularly, on net, had a negative impact on local economic development, studies of the areas adjacent to these protected areas should show lower levels of economic development than found in areas where no such restrictions had been placed on commercial exploitation of the natural landscape.

However, analysis of the rates of economic growth in communities adjacent to protected natural areas reveals the opposite: rates of economic growth have been much higher in areas adjacent to National Wilderness areas and National Parks. For instance, population growth in counties adjacent to National Parks and National Wilderness areas has been two to three times that found in metropolitan counties and three to six times the growth found in nonmetropolitan counties in general. (2) Statistical analysis of residential real estate activity also indicates that National Parks and Wilderness Areas serve as "magnets" for new economic activity in the Northern Rockies. (3) Similar analysis of state parks also indicates that they contribute to economic development rather than retard it. (4) Even in regions of the nation that have been losing population, local natural amenities have allowed some areas to buck the negative trend. For instance, analysis of the Great Plains indicates that areas with attractive natural amenities have been able to hold their existing population and attract new residents despite the opposite region-wide trend. (5)

Researchers on that national scale have noted this role of natural amenities in supporting rural population stability or growth. (6) Some of the growth in the larger urban areas may also be supported by the protection of amenities in the rural areas. Urban residents evaluate the attractiveness of a city not just on the basis of the employment and income opportunities and the quality of the social environment (safety, quality of public services, etc.), they also evaluate the natural setting and recreational opportunities of the surrounding rural landscape.

It is important to realize that commercial tourism represents only part of the economic value of protected landscapes. Current and potential future residents are the primary beneficiaries even though they may not expend much money in their ongoing enjoyment of the environmental services that those landscapes provide. Because people care where they live and act on their preferences for high quality living environments, including natural environments, the geographic distribution of economic activity is heavily influenced by the geographic distribution of social and natural amenities. This powerful economic force provides a good part of the explanation for the redistribution of the nation's population and economic activity over the last half-century including the recent growth in the nonmetropolitan eastern Washington counties we have been focused on as well as the whole of the Pacific Northwest, the ongoing "resettlement" of the Mountain West, the shift from "frost belt" to "sun belt," and the shift from center city to suburbs. (7)

Tourism and commercial recreation are not insignificant economic forces. Although not the dominant expansionary force in these nonmetropolitan areas, tourism is an important factor in the economic relationship between protected landscapes and local economies. It also plays a role in supporting non-tourist amenity-supported economic development since it is often through tourism that potential new residents become familiar with an area's amenities. Thus, even if our focus is solely on an economic base view of the natural landscape, the one sector of the industries that rely on the natural landscape for their "raw materials" that has not been relatively stagnant or in decline is recreation and tourism. It has been steadily increasing while the other natural resource sectors have gone through long term declines. In this setting, given the other economic development values associated with protected natural areas, the prudent economic development strategy would be to focus on the proven sources of growth and development rather than focusing exclusively on preserving the historically mature industries that are in relative decline and offer little or no long run potential for new jobs, income, and residents. (8) It is very important to take such a forward-looking perspective rather than focusing on the rear-view mirror. Even if timber, agriculture, and mining can be stabilized, these sectors are constantly displacing labor with technology and capital. They will not be a source of new, long run, employment opportunities. In contrast, natural amenities and the economic values associated with them will continue to be the source of new jobs and income.

C. The Economic Values Associated with Washington's National Forests

Estimates have not been made for most of the economic values associated with the long list of natural forest environmental services provided in Figure 1.1. Of the non-commercial economic values, only recreation and roadless area passive use values have been estimated. Of course, the market provides an indication of commercial timber values. The Forest Service has estimated that in 1995 the passive use values totaled over $3.5 billion dollars for all of the Interior Columbia Basin's federal lands. Recreation values totaled about $3.2 billion. Timber values amounted to about $900 million. (9) The combination of recreation and passive use values were almost eight times the size of the timber values. In areas where recreation is less important and timber more important, the relative importance of timber values would be greater, but it would remain a distinct minority of the total economic value associated with the National Forests. If watershed, fishery, wildlife and other forest values listed in Figure 1.1 were included in the total economic value, timber would decline even further in relative terms. Just as important, the relative importance of timber economic values in the total of forest economic values is expected to decline over the next 50 years from about 11.5 percent to about 5.4 percent as recreation values increase.

Analysis of the employment impacts of timber and recreation also indicate that the dominant economic connection between the National Forests and local communities is through recreation, not timber. For Washington State as a whole, the total jobs (direct, indirect, and induced) associated with Forest Service harvests came to about 4,100 while the total recreation jobs associated with the National Forests were estimated at about 188,000. (10) Part of the reason for this, of course, is that only a tiny percentage of total timber harvests in Washington, 2.8 percent in 1998, come from National Forests while those forests provide the basis for much of the recreational activity in the state. If we focus only on the direct jobs and on eastern and southwestern Washington, the results are almost as dramatic. Recreation associated with National Forest lands is the source of five to thirty-five times the employment associated with National Forest timber harvests. See Table 4.2. (11) In this part of Washington, which does not include most of the southwest counties, the National Forests are the source of a slightly larger share of total harvest, about 9.2 percent in 1998 (12). However, when recreation is compared to timber supply, these National Forest lands provide a much larger percentage of that activity than timber supply.


Wood products jobs in general pay more than recreation jobs. That means that timber harvests from the National Forests will be the source of a larger percentage of personal income than of jobs. But any reasonable adjustment for the difference in the wages paid in the two sectors would leave the primary economic connection between the National Forests and local communities a recreation connection rather than a logging connection.

D. Minimizing the Economic Cost of Meeting Environmental Laws

Roadless areas directly provide a broad range of environmental services including wildlife habitat, clean water, and climate stabilization. Road building and clearcutting these areas threatens those values. Even if Washington citizens did not care particularly about the environmental impacts of opening roadless areas to commercial timber development, they are very likely to care about the economic costs associated with trying to reestablish legally mandated minimum environmental standards after those standards have been violated.

Washington has had direct and dramatic experience with the consequences of ignoring legally mandated environmental standards until it is too late. The economic impact of the federal courts' decisions that timber harvests were illegally threatening the northern spotted owl will not soon be forgotten by this generation of Washington's citizens. Whatever one might think about the courts' decisions, the economic impact was real. Similar difficult decisions are going to have to be made about endangered salmon stocks. Other endangered species issues are also developing. In addition, timber roads and harvests often make major contributions to the silting of streams and the loss of fish habitat. The nation and the world still have not come to grips with the rising levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

As both the northern spotted owl "train wreck" and the developing crisis surrounding the threatened extinction of many wild salmon stocks make clear, ignoring environmental problems does not make them go away. Refusing to accept the economic costs associated with limiting environmental damage does not mean those costs are actually avoided. Instead, both the damage and the costs accumulate. When we finally are legally required to act, the costs can appear staggering and the economic dislocation severe. Acting responsibly earlier can substantially reduce both. Currently hundreds of millions of dollars a year are being spent on what appears to be ineffectual steps to improve salmon survival and rebuild populations. Because this does not appear to be working, much more dramatic actions are being considered including the breaching of several dams and/or severe reductions in ocean-based salmon fishing and upper basin irrigated agriculture. The economic cost may well rise into the billions.

Washington's roadless areas currently provide habitat for wildlife, including endangered wildlife. Those roadless areas also produce high quality water and habitat for fisheries. The standing timber sequesters carbon, making a modest regional contribution to helping solve another environmental problem. One could go on. The environmental services provided by roadless areas are economically valuable, at the very least, for the contribution they make in helping to reduce the future costs of solving a broad range of existing and developing environmental problems.

E. Roadless Area Protection and the Pursuit of Economic Value

The primary economic role of natural forests is to provide environmental services to a broad range of people. The most obvious beneficiaries are those who live on adjacent lands and in adjacent communities who regularly enjoy the recreation, scenic, wildlife, open space, and water values provided by the nearby forests. But the benefits of those forests also flow to residents who live great distances from the forest. The forests protect habitat for fish that, like the salmon, travel long distances. The forests stabilize water flows and water quality, sequester carbon and stabilize climate, provide a remnant of the natural world that is not totally dominated by human activity, and provide recreational opportunities for visitors.

One key question in the debate over the appropriate management of Washington's remaining roadless areas is how the road building and harvesting of timber in these areas will affect the total set of economic values those forests are capable of providing. To answer this question, one has to place it in a larger dynamic context that looks forward to the relative future balance of the supply of and demand for the various economic values the forest can provide. Just focusing on the present while answering a question that has long run implications is inappropriate and dangerous.

Road building the remaining unprotected roadless areas reduces the stock of relatively pristine wildlands that is available to both humans and wildlife. At the same time it increases the supply of wood fiber and opportunities for road-based recreation. Road-based recreation; e.g., sightseeing from an automobile, is an important part of recreational activity in Washington. The ICBEMP analysis estimated that about 5 percent of recreation economic values were associated with "motor viewing" in 1995. This was projected to rise to about 20 percent of recreation values over the next 50 years as an aging population makes greater use of motor vehicles to visit the forests. (13) In addition, many other recreational activities on National Forests make use of roads to gain access to recreational opportunities.

Expanding the part of the forested landscape that can be reached by motor vehicle might appear to facilitate this expanded interest in motor viewing. Additional roading and logging, however, have two drawbacks in this regard. First, additional roads and logging reduce the scenic integrity of the motor viewing and may reduce wildlife observation by reducing wildlife populations. Both would reduce the value of the motorized sightseeing. Second, in determining the value of additions to supply, one has to compare supply to demand. Providing additional increments of something already in over-supply does not add much economic value. In general, resources are better used when they satisfy those demands most constrained by limited supply.

The vast majority of the state is available for motorized activities now. Only about 10 percent of the state's land base is now in designated wilderness areas that prohibit motorized activity. The remaining inventoried roadless areas represent another 4 percent of the state. If all of these areas were protected from roading and logging, 85 percent of the state would still be available for motor vehicle-based recreation and other activities. The stock of relatively pristine wildlands can only decline over time as the population and demand for the experiences only it can provide increases. In this setting, the recreation question is whether we should further reduce the relatively small stock of land available to support wildland values in order to expand the already massive supply of land that is open to motor vehicle use. Should we reduce further that which is in relatively short supply in order to expand that which is already in abundant supply? In most normal circumstances, economics would answer this question with a firm "no." Only if there were little or no demand for the thing that was in relatively short supply and little prospect that the demand would rise would it be appropriate to make such a lopsided allocation of resources among competing uses.

The study author is not aware of any formal economic analysis of this question for eastern and southwest Washington. This issue, however, was addressed by Forest Service researchers for western Washington, western Oregon, and Northern California. (14) The analysis used survey information to assign recreation activities to various types of National Forest landscapes that were distinguished primarily on the basis of how dominant roads and motorized activity were: primitive, semi-primitive, non-motorized, semi-primitive motorized, roaded natural, roaded modified rural. Unit economic values from previous studies were applied to these different activities in these different settings and the total economic value associated with recreation in the different settings was totaled. The highest total recreation values were those associated with the "roaded natural" setting and the second highest the "roaded modified rural." Some might take this to mean that more National Forest land should be allocated to these "most highly demanded" recreation settings. But a reference to the projected balance between supply and demand in the year 2000 told a quite different story. For both of these motorized roaded settings the existing supply was almost twice the expected level of demand. There was no foreseeable shortage. On the other hand, there were significant unmet demands for primitive and semiprimitive nonmotorized recreation settings. The economically optimal allocation of land to different uses in this setting would be to protect the existing primitive and semi-primitive opportunities and not undermine them with addition transportation networks that converted them to settings already in excess supply. That was exactly what the extension of roaded timber harvest would have done, adding almost four million acres to a category already in excess supply by 3 million acres while cutting in half the semi-primitive nonmotorized recreation base which was already in massive deficit relative to demand. The net result was a reduction in the economic value of the recreation that the National Forests could support. If passive use values were included in the analysis, the loss of economic value associated with additional roaded timber development was even greater.

When there is a shrinking public resource such as Washington's roadless areas, that is highly valued for the environmental services it can provide, including high quality recreation opportunities, economic rationality requires very careful analysis before it is irrevocably committed to a particular use. Commodity values such as timber that can be easily pursued on private lands with private resources and which, in any case are not in particularly short supply, should be treated for what they are: relatively common values for which there are ready substitutes. On the other hand, values that are associated with relatively unique, irreplaceable gifts of nature that are in increasingly short supply should not be sacrificed in the pursuit of that which is common and readily available by other means. To do so is to gratuitously waste a valuable resource and leave current and future generations poorer.

1.  Ed Whitelaw and Ernie Niemi of the University of Oregon and ECONorthwest popularized the "second paycheck" way of describing the economic value of site-specific amenities.

2.  See Gundars Rudzitis, Wilderness and the Changing American West, John Wiley & Sons, 1996, pp. 106-107.

3.  See David H. Jackson and Kenneth Wall. "Mapping and Modeling Real Estate Development in Rural Western Montana." Discussion Paper No. 2. Bolle Center, School of Forestry, University of Montana, Missoula, MT. June 27, 1995.

4.  "The Effect of State Parks on the County Economies of the West," Duffy-Deno, K. T., 1997, Journal of LeisureResearch , 29(2):201-224.

5.  "Net Migration in the Great Plains Increasingly Linked to Natural Amenities and Suburbanization," John B. Cromartie, 1998,Rural Development Perspectives, 13(1):27-34.

6.  "Natural Amenities Drive Rural Population Change," David A. McGranahan, Economic Research Service, USDA, Agricultural Economic Report No. 781, September, 1999. Also see the August 1999 issue of Rural DevelopmentPerspective (14(2), USDA, ERS) that was devoted to the rural West. Almost all of the articles note the role of natural amenities in supporting the "resettlement" of the rural West.

7.  For further support for these statements see the author's Environmental Quality and Economic Development: TheEconomic Pursuit of Quality (M. E. Sharpe: Armonk, NY, 1996) and Lost Landscapes and Failed Economies: TheSearch for a Value of Place (Island Press: Washington, DC, 1996).

8.  New employment would be associated with new economic activities that either make use of wood fiber now wasted or that further process the products now being produced by Washington mills. This is usually described as additional "value-added" manufacturing.

9.  ICBEMP Economic Assessment of the Basin, p. 1824-1825 and Figure 6.28.

10.  Logging Jobs: National Summary Timber Sale Program Annual Report Fiscal Year 1994. Recreation Jobs: Explanatory Notes for the 1997 US Forest Service Budget, Recreation Resources Information System. Calculation: Recreation jobs were calculated by the Forest Service using total RVDs for all National Forests to produce a model of the nationwide jobs and income attributable to recreation.

11.  In Table 4.2 all the BEA economic regions stretch beyond Washington except for the Tri-Cities region. I have applied the average importance of National Forest timber supply to the total supply for eastern and southwestern WA as shown in Table 3.2 to that part of each of these regions that is located in WA. This is necessarily only an approximation.

12.  This is the percentage for eastern Washington and just Skamania from the southwest combined. The absence for the other southwest counties is what makes this percentage significantly larger. See Table 3.2 in Chapter 3 for the individual county percentages.

13. ICBEMP, Chapter 6, Economic Assessment of the Basin, p. 1924.

14.  "Role of Nonmarket Economic Values in Benefit-Cost Analysis of Public Forest Management," Cindy Sorg Swanson and John B. Loomis, Pacific Northwest Research Station, PNW-GTR-361, March 1996.

Download Page
Previous Section - Chapter 3
Next Section - Chapter 5
Wild Washington Home