Environmental Integrity

Economic Value of Wilderness - Part Three

Societal Relevance of Wilderness Lands

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Economic Value of Wilderness – Part Three

Societal Relevance of Wilderness Lands

Author: Rebecca Rasch

Source: "A Perpetual Flow of Benefits: Wilderness Economic Values in an Evolving, Multicultural Society," Thomas P. Holmes, Editor,
               by the Wilderness Economics Working Group of the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute, Rocky Mountain Research Station,
               U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service

Wilderness Values

Wilderness values are complex and not easily encapsulated into a single framework. Instead, wilderness values are often described as including a broader range of benefits to people, including both use values (e.g., recreation) and nonuse values (e.g., just knowing that wilderness lands exist). Wilderness values can also be defined in relation to the services wilderness provides to people and other living things (Cordell and others 2005).Cordell and others (2005) provide a comprehensive summary of the many wilderness value frameworks used by scholars across disciplines. Bergstrom and others (2005) suggest that wilderness values are a function of wilderness attributes, functions, and services. In their framework, wilderness is a natural capital asset with four distinct categories: social, economic, ecological, and ethical (Morton 1999). Williams and Watson (2007) posit that wilderness values are fluid. Instead of solely being functions of attributes and services of wilderness, their view suggests that wilderness values are products of larger societal trends and can therefore be heavily influenced by changes in societal values over time (Williams and Watson 2007). Cordell and others’ (2005) wilderness values typology focuses on measuring the importance people place on a suite of benefits wilderness areas provide. While these benefits may apply to nature, in general, they are commonly used to describe the benefits specific to wilderness areas. These benefits are:

●  Protecting water quality

●  Knowing that future generations will have wilderness areas

●  Providing recreation opportunities

●  Protecting wildlife habitat

●  Providing spiritual inspiration

●  Preserving natural areas for scientific study

●  Preserving unique plant andanimal ecosystems and genetic strains

●  Knowing that in the future there will be the option to visit a wilderness or primitive area of one’s choosing

●  Protecting air quality

●  Providing income for the tourist industry

●  Protecting rare and endangered species

●  Providing scenic beauty

●  Just knowing that wilderness and primitive areas exist


These benefits of wilderness were derived by itemizing a suite of values (direct and indirect) (Cordell and others 2003, Mountford and Kepler 1999). Cordell and others (2005) further ggregated wilderness values into a three-pronged typology:


●  Ecological services values are those benefits such as protecting clear air and clean water, which indirectly contribute to human health and well-being (Schuster and others 2005).

●  Ecosystem protection values include protecting wildlife habitat, preserving unique plant and animal ecosystems and genetic strains, and protecting rare and endangered species.

●  Amenities for humans include both use and nonuse values that contribute to social or economic well-being. These include providing recreation opportunities, providing income for the tourist industry, providing scenic beauty, just knowing that wilderness and primitive areas exist, knowing that in the future there will be the option to visit a wilderness area or primitive area of one’s choice, knowing that future generations will have wilderness areas, providing spiritual inspiration, and preserving natural areas for scientific study.

While these wilderness values are undoubtedly interdependent, the key benefits within each value grouping are distinct. Ecological services are those benefits that are essential for human existence. For instance, without clear air and water, humans and most other life forms could not survive. Ecosystem protection benefits focus on the overall values of the ecosystem for wildlife and biodiversity. Amenities for humans are benefits that improve our quality of life. Though these amenities are not essential for our existence, they contribute to happiness and general well-being. The remainder of this article will focus on these three key wilderness value themes identified in Cordell and others’ (2005) typology.

Societal Trends Influencing Wilderness Values

Societal trends related to urbanization, educational attainment, technological embeddedness (the extent to which people are engaged with technology), and increasing cultural diversity are often cited in the wilderness literature as influencing the relevance of wilderness to society. Williams and Watson (2007) suggest that emerging adults, coming of age in a more urban, educated, and technologically dependent society, will develop an increased appreciation of wilderness—an otherworldly place, so remote and different from their daily lives. Others warn that cohorts growing up surrounded by screens, rather than climbing trees, are not learning to appreciate nature (Dickinson 2013, Louv 2005). Many Americans are not even aware of wilderness areas (Cordell and others 2003) and consequently fail to appreciate the full suite of benefits that wilderness areas provide. With the increases in television content, video games, internet sites, and social media platforms, the “great outdoors” has a lot more competition for young people’sattention than it once did.


In 1960, around one in three Americans lived in a rural area1 (U.S. Census Bureau 2016b), and the vast majority of Americans completed their formal education with a high school diploma. By 2010, just 19 percent of Americans were living in rural areas (U.S. Census Bureau 2016c) and around 30 percent had earned at least a college degree (U.S. Census Bureau 2016a). There is a vast literature on how urban migration impacts societal values (Knox and Pinch 2014). Urban dwellers (those living in populated areas of at least 2,500 people) tend to be more highly educated and have more access to new ideas, technological innovations, and interactions with those outside their direct networks (Ratcliffe 2016). Urbanites are more relationally embedded, i.e., have more social ties (Granovetter 1985), providing them with larger social networks and opportunities for transfer of new ideas and information. With the introduction of the internet to more rural areas, this imbalance between urban and rural information networks is likely leveling, but there is still an “urban” advantage, both with access to high-speed internet and exposure to people with differing ideas and backgrounds. As such, it is likely that urbanization may be shifting wilderness values.

Watson and Williams (2007) address how urbanization trends may be influencing wilderness values, positing that as populations continue to urbanize, the value of wilderness will increase. This rise in value is linked to the economic concept of scarcity. As more open lands are transformed into suburban centers, protected lands and particularly wilderness should increase in value. Additionally, wilderness, as both a symbol and an experience, becomes increasingly unique.As a natural, untrammeled place, wilderness provides a stark contrast to the daily, human-centric existence of urban dwellers. The more robust information networks in urban environments also allow for more rapid flows of information. Stories and evidence of environmental degradation are more readily part of the urban nomenclature, thus furthering the perception of scarcity of wilderness lands, which, in turn, should lead to an increasing valuation of wilderness lands.

Louv’s (2005) argument, that fewer children are exposed to nature, provides a counterpoint to Watson and William’s perspective. It is equally plausible that urbanization could cause declines in wilderness values as fewer children have firsthand experience with nature and exposure to the benefits that visiting wild areas can provide.

Educational Attainment

Educational attainment can lead to changes in wilderness values. A more educated public has a firmer grasp on environmental systems and human-environment interactions (Cortese 2003). Some college degree programs require coursework in the natural sciences, where students learn the basic ecological processes and the link between protected land and ecological services such as protecting clean air and clean water. As more of the public enters the higher education system, more have the opportunity to become fluent in fundamental ecological processes (e.g., how ecosystems purify the air and/or provide habitat for rare and endangered species) and understand the value to society of ecosystem protection (Yung and others 1998). While higher education provides students with greater opportunities to learn about natural systems, those who do not continue past high school may not have access to environmental education and thus the opportunity to learn about the benefits of wilderness. With the increasing emphasis on teaching a core curriculum and standardized testing in K–12 education, environmental education may be viewed as a secondary priority, compared to more mainstream subjects such as math and history. When budgets are tight, it is likely that environmental education programs at the primary and secondary level, much like art and music programs, suffer. This could create a schism,where those with a college degree have different wilderness values than those without a degree.

Technological Embeddedness

Technological embeddedness (Peng and others 2009, Sassen 2002, Volkoff and others 2007) describes the condition where daily routines have become embedded in technology. For example, an emoji text message may take the place of a face-to-face greeting. The greeting becomes embedded within technology, and the act becomes more “material” or tangible. Theorists suggest this technological embeddedness can lead to social change (Volkoff and others 2007) as once an act shifts from intangible to tangible, it is approached and processed differently by the actors. Technological embeddedness thus fuels the tacit hierarchy of the tangible over the intangible.

Trends in technological embeddedness may explain shifts in wilderness values in younger cohorts, i.e., those born after the baby boom generation. Younger generations, who came of age in a society where daily routines were embedded in technology, are undoubtedly different from their predecessors (Ryder 1965). Social psychologists have studied generational differences in values and attitudes and found significant evidence of a decline in nature relatedness, one’s subjective connection to nature (Metz 2014,Twenge and others 2012, Zelenski and Nisbet 2014), in younger cohorts. Nature relatedness is highly correlated with environmental values (Zelenski and Nisbet 2014). Thus, waning nature relatedness, posited as an artifact of higher technological embeddedness, may result in shifts in wilderness values.

In 2008, Americans spent around 3 hours per day watching television or using their computers (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2008) and around 16 minutes per day participating in sports, exercise, and/or recreation. The ratio of technologically embedded activities (i.e., watching television or using their computer) to nature-related leisure time for Americans age 16 and older was 11:1.2 The more time younger cohorts spend in technologically embedded settings (e.g., using their smartphones), the less time they spend appreciating natural settings (DiMaggio and others 2001, Louv 2005).

Emerging adulthood, the period between 18 and 25, is thought to be the time when young adults form environmental values and leisure social identities that will stick with them throughout their lifetime (Brooks and Williams 2012, Watson 2013). Those adults who emerged in a time of higher technological embeddedness may have a significantly different connection to nature, though not necessarily weaker, compared to those who came of age in a time when enjoying the great outdoors was a more common leisure activity. Additionally, the implicit prioritization of the tangible over the intangible, which technological embeddedness tends to advance, may be impacting how younger cohorts value the more emotional benefits of wilderness, such as its value as a symbol of human humility.

Cultural Diversity

Concern for and appreciation of wilderness lands have been critiqued as values belonging to a particular class and status group, specifically White, affluent, urban men (Cronon 1996, Dickinson 2013). However, more recent studies have shown that the value of wilderness, as an ecological concept and/or social construct, tends to cross racial and ethnic divides (Johnson and others 2004), even though there are differences in visitation rates to wilderness areas by race and ethnicity (Bowker and others 2006). Wilderness values are sociocultural productions. The extent to which different racial and ethnic groups have historically experienced wildlands, and the extent to which new immigrants assimilate into the dominant culture, will play significant roles in how values are shaped in younger generations (Johnson and Bowker 2004). As American society continues to become more racially and ethnically diverse, through both natural increase and immigration, shifts in wilderness values are likely.

Recent Findings

A recent study by Rasch (2018) yields valuable insights regarding this topic. Societal trends appear to be stabilizing ecosystem protection and ecological services values while weakening use and nonuse amenity values. While it was beyond the scope of Rasch’s analysis to unequivocally identify the mechanisms of change, the data do support the notion that technological embeddedness may be playing a significant role in the observed shifts in wilderness values in younger cohorts. In the case of ecological services values, Rasch found that educational attainment appears to play a larger role than urbanization. A possible explanation is that knowledge of ecological services is acquired through more formal education channels, rather than passed along through urban communication networks or acquired through personal experience with wilderness areas.

Conversely, in the case of ecosystem protection values, urbanization did play a role. Rasch found that people living in cities were more likely to have stronger ecosystem protection values, compared to those in rural areas. This finding lends support to the argument that ecosystem protection values, unlike ecological services, are being transferred through urban networks.

Rasch also found that those without a college degree held stronger use and nonuse amenity values, compared to those with a college degree. This finding may be related to the increased emphasis in higher education on the negative, human impacts to wilderness (Yung and others 1998) and the degradation caused by overuse. Another explanation could be the greater focus in higher education on science and the tangible values of natural areas such as biodiversity. Most college degree programs do not provide a wilderness studies curriculum or offer courses on the more esoteric values of wilderness championed in the late 1960s.


It appears that societal trends of urbanization, educational attainment, and technological embeddedness may be shifting wilderness values in younger generations, though not always in the expected directions. Ecosystem protection values are seemingly universal across generations, though more present in urban environments and in those with higher levels of formal education. Ecological services values (e.g., clean air and water) do not appear to have as much traction with those born in the 1970s and later. This could be related to possible declines in environmental literary curriculum at the K–12 level (Cortese 2003, NAAEE 2014). This finding may also be due to a lack of understanding of the ecological services that wilderness areas, in particular, provide. An analysis of ecological services values related to natural or/and protected areas in general may yield different results.

Nonuse values may also be losing their appeal for younger, technologically embedded cohorts who are less likely to value intangible processes or to have had firsthand experiences connecting with and/or being inspired by natural settings (Louv 2005). Younger generations may also be less familiar with nonuse values compared to baby boomers. These more ethereal values often stem from a previous phenomenological experience of communing with and assigning meaning to nature (Blumer 1986, Williams and others 1992). Louv (2005) warns that as younger generations spend less of their emerging adulthood years in nature, they will develop into adults who cannot perceive natural environments as valuable, in and of themselves.

Smith and Kirby (2015), in their study of whether or not the wilderness tradition still speaks to millennials, find that some millennials do value natural environments and wild places, yet they are conceptualizing wilderness differently than those in the baby boom generation. Some millennials identify more with a local version of wilderness, a place wild enough to immerse themselves in a natural environment, though it would not qualify as wilderness under the more stringent concept of an untrammeled wild place, completely devoid of any visible human impact. In fact, some millennials (and even some in older cohorts) find the untrammeled concept obsolete, given climate change and the level of development across the United States. Instead, they are happy to find awe and inspiration from small wild places,such as a nearby park (Smith and Kirby 2015).

Wilderness Management Implications

The sentiments captured by Smith and Kirby (2015), along with Rasch’s (2018) finding that those born post-1970s are less likely to value wilderness for its mere existence, suggest that younger generations may be more in favor of active wilderness management, including restoration and intervention projects. If the concept of wilderness as pristine and untrammeled is considered a fallacy by some millennials, then they may believe that trammeling for the sake of restoration is acceptable, particularly with the increasing threats to vulnerable wilderness landscapes. Advocates of wildness and preserving the concept of “untrammeled landscapes” as a central tenet in the social construct of wilderness should take heed that unless there is greater effort to ramp up education around the untrammeled value of wilderness, this sentiment may very well be lost on future generations. If current observed trends continue, there may also be increasing pressure from the voting-age American public, not only for restoration in wilderness, but also for intervention activities which are designed to ensure a continued flow of habitat protection services, even if they come at the expense of some level of wildness.


1 A rural area is defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as a place with <2,500 residents.

2 This is a conservative estimate as some exercise, sports, and recreation are performedindoors.