A master's thesis by a Utah State University student is being cited as showing that wilderness is a bad investment for Utah.
The thesis was written by Kim S. Christy, who earned his master's degree and went on to work for the Utah Farm Bureau.His concluding sentence is: "These findings suggest that, from a recreational perspective, adding wilderness areas to the National Wilderness Preservation System is unjustified."
I obtained a copy of the thesis and was immediately struck by the lack of discussion about the millions of acres of Bureau of Land Management wilderness study areas.
But let's pass that minor oversight and tackle the question of wilderness on Utah's national forests.
Until 1984, the thesis recognizes basically only two wilderness-type regions in the state, the High Uintas Primitive Area, about 236,000 acres, and the Lone Peak Wilderness, designated in 1978 near Salt Lake City, about 30,000 acres. Total: 266,000 acres.
When the Utah Forest Service Wilderness Act was passed in 1984, and it was the only law to designate additional wilderness, it added about 512,000 acres.
Until then, the only wilderness or primitive areas considered by the thesis are Lone Peak, close to Salt Lake City, and the High Unitas. Both are heavily used because of their accessibility.
As a result of the 1984 law, Utah's wilderness acreage shot up by 292 percent. To keep pace statistically, wilderness use would have had to increase by 400,000 hikers over night. Ridiculous.
Yet if it didn't, somebody with a calculator would claim that use wasn't keeping pace with the addition of land to wilderness. It couldn't, and somebody did.
What actually happened is that wilderness use increased substantially in 1984, up by 42 percent over 1983. The following year, it went up 103 percent.
Yet these figures are used to support a claim that wilderness isn't a good investment.
Why not? Because the increase in visits didn't keep pace with the increase in acreage, under the thesis' flawed reasoning.
Also, acreage figures aren't accurate in the thesis. They show peculiar additions and subtractions from one year to the next.
For example, wilderness-type acreage is shown as 266,597 in 1983, then 490,088 in 1984, then 779,638 in 1985, and finally down a bit to 778,001 in 1979.
But only one wilderness bill was passed by Congress in that period, the 1984 act.
Christy relies upon the Forest Service's Recreational Information Management computer system for the figures. The thesis notes the system has been criticized for inaccuracy.
More accurate sources of information are the Lone Peak and 1984 wilderness themselves, which show precisely how much acreage was designated.
"This office is where we keep all the actual records and statistics of acres," said Lisa Marino, conveyance clerk in the Forest Service's Land Status Office, Ogden. "We show a total for the state of 774,328" acres.
It's less than the actual total, because "We are waiting for engineering to put the maps in the system," she said. "It takes a long time because they have to actually go out on the ground."
Before the information goes into the Forest Service computer, the agency has to survey the land and prepare detailed maps. But that doesn't change the fact that Congress designated a set amount of wilderness.
Yet by relying on yearly printouts as information is fed into the computer, the thesis gives the illusion of showing a gradual growth in wilderness acres.
The illusion makes it more plausible to claim that the growth in wilderness hikers hasn't kept pace.
What do the actual visitation figures show?
According to the thesis, wilderness use in Utah grew from 240,717 visitor-days in 1967 to 778,001 in 1986 - up by 223 percent.
At the same time, visitor-days for the gigantic non-wilderness resource went up from 4,690,100 in 1967 to 12,014,700 in 1986. The growth was up by 156 percent - or at a rate about 30 percent LESS than the growth rate in the use of wilderness.
Even more astounding are the thesis' figures of per-acre use.
As flawed as that type of analysis is, it still shows that the use per acre was .62 persons a year for wilderness in the last year tallied, 1986. But the use per acre of non-wilderness was only .37 persons.
So on an acre-by-acre basis, wilderness is used nearly twice as heavily as non-wilderness.
It proves wilderness is a highly valuable resource, attracting many outdoors adventurers, and that we need much more to accommodate them.