More wilderness will not enhance tourism, and the wilderness already set aside in Utah is attracting fewer and fewer people, according to research conducted at Utah State University.
The results of a two-year study made public Friday challenge the previously popular notion that wilderness enhances public recreation use and suggest that the public would be better served by increasing non-wilderness recreational opportunities.The two-year research study was begun in 1987 and is written by USU economics professor E. Bruce Godfrey and master's degree candidate Kim S. Christy.
Godfrey, who led the research team that conducted the study, said Friday that data and documents from the U.S. Forest Service show wilderness recreation use per acre on Utah's Forest Service lands - the only areas in the state where wilderness has been formally designated - has declined at a compounded rate of nearly 6 percent annually since 1977.
He said the study also shows non-wilderness recreation use per acre on Forest Service lands in Utah increased by 2.4 percent annually during the same time.
"While there are other variables in valuing the preservation of wilderness, this research was motivated by previous research which suggested the public believes the greatest attribute of wilderness designation may be the recreational opportunities these areas provide," Godfrey said.
According to the USU study, U.S. Forest Service data show recreation in wilderness areas nationally has declined 4.1 percent annually since 1977, while non-wilderness-area recreation use in the United States has increased 1.8 percent annually in the same time.
"Rather than emphasizing expansion of designated wilderness acreage, policy makers should interpret these statistics as justification for providing further recreational opportunities in non-wilderness lands," he said.
C. Booth Wallentine, chairman of the Utah Public Lands Multiple Use Coalition, on Friday applauded the USU study.
"It is a myth that Utah will gain more revenue or jobs by adding more wilderness. Tourism is important, but wilderness restricts access," said Wallentine, whose coalition includes 14 organizations representing numerous companies, processors, livestock producers, county officials, water management agencies and others who favor the multiple use of public lands.
George Nickas, assistant coordinator for the Utah Wilderness Association, said Friday that he had not seen the USU study.
Still, "statistics I have seen show an increased use of Utah's wilderness," he said. "Nationally, I believe there has been a decline in use, but that is good. We were literally loving America's wilderness to death."
Nickas said it is a myth that recreation is the only use for wilderness. "Wilderness is important for its scientific value and for preserving wildlife and watershed lands.
"There is growing support among Americans and Utahns for wilderness. So what if they don't use it? They realize wilderness is valuable for more than just its recreational value."
Historically, Godfrey said, wilderness advocates have argued that wilderness usage is increasing relative to non-wilderness use. "That is true in purely total numbers, but it is due to the expansion of designated acreages in recent years.
"The bottom line is wilderness recreation usage is not keeping pace with the expansion of acreage that has occurred over the past decade in our state, in the region or nationally," Godfrey said.
He said analysis of U.S. Forest Service data regarding its Intermountain Region, which includes Utah, Nevada, most of Idaho, a quarter of Wyoming and small parcels of Colorado and California, show wilderness recreation use has declined nearly 3 percent annually.
Non-wilderness use in the same area increased by 2 percent.
Though previous research has intimated that Utahns want more designated wilderness, Godfrey said these figures dispute that assessment.
Christy said he wonders if Utahns and others in America really know what a formally designated wilderness area is. "I wonder if Utahns realize what the implications are of locking up areas in a formal wilderness designation. Do they know you cannot drive a motor vehicle in it and that you must walk or ride a horseif you expect to travel within it?"
Godfrey says he believes some reasons so little use is being made of wilderness areas are because "our nation's population is becoming older, people's lifestyles are changing and people are more interested in comfort than they used to be, more interested in sight-seeing in motor vehicles, campers and motor homes than backpacking or hiking.
"Overall, and in terms of population percentages, there seems to be a dwindling interest in hiking or backpacking miles into a wilderness lake or riding a horse deep into wilderness areas.