Published on 09/03/02

UGA, USFS study to benchmark wilderness values

The National Wilderness Preservation System holds and protects millions of acres in the United States from human development. But of what value is this, really?

University of Georgia scientists are helping spearhead a national study to help elected officials, regulatory agencies and land policymakers answer this question.

The Debate

When natural areas such as a wilderness are preserved, there is often a debate on whether the preservation is worth lost jobs and income that might come from commercial development.

"What do we get back in return for preservation?" said John Bergstrom, an economist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. "What are the benefits?"

This study is a collaborative effort between UGA and the U.S. Forest Service office in Athens, Ga. It will include the studies, opinions and inputs of economists, sociologists, ecologists, philosophers and preservation experts across the country.

There are benefits for developing and for not developing natural areas. "There are tradeoffs," said Bergstrom, who is leading UGA's part of the project.

The project will identify the social, economical, ecological and ethical values of the land already under the NWPS. This includes 644 land units, totaling nearly 106 million acres.

Georgia has 485,000 acres protected in the north, southeast and coastal parts of the state. The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is the largest of these areas, encompassing 396,000 acres of the 438,000-acre swamp.

Combine Past with Future

Trying to determine the value of land preservation is nothing new, Bergstrom said. But this year-long project will collect all the information from the past and combine it with new studies.

The final product will be a reference book that can be used by anyone looking for the tradeoffs and values of current and future land preservation projects.

Say the water supply of a large city begins in the small streams that flow through a natural area north of the city. But this natural area has been developed increasingly. This development has economic benefits for the area but will increase sediment and waste products in the water on its way to the city. City officials figure the increased cost of treating the "developed" water is around $6 billion.

Would it better to move forward with development and spend the money for water treatment? Or, would it be better to buy the land and set it aside as protected preserve.

New York City officials decided, in 1997, it made more sense to buy the land and preserve it.

"We can use this project to learn more about the economic and environmental values of natural areas in general, whether they're wilderness areas or not," he said. "There's a lot of concern about the loss of natural areas."

With this information, he said, state and local governments could see the benefits of setting aside natural areas and better understand what is gained and lost.

On the other hand, the project could tell in a more precise way how much is being lost because a preserved area is not being farmed, mined or used to build houses.

In 1964, Congress passed the Wilderness Act, which restricted grazing, mining, timber cutting and mechanized vehicles in protected areas. It began with 9.1 million acres. Now, 4.4 percent of the continental United States is protected as wilderness. Alaska contains about 60 percent of the total protected land areas in the United States.

Brad Haire is the former news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.