We read with interest Joe Bauman's environmental column in the March 17 issue of the Deseret News. It challenged a recent Utah State University study that analyzed historic recreational use of U.S. Forest Service wilderness and non-wilderness lands.
As the individuals who conducted the research, we appreciated the corrections offered by the Deseret News the following day concerning some of his misunderstandings. Unfortunately, however, not all of the misconceptions were properly addressed.Our research was based upon data generated through a system used by the Forest Service that measures annual recreational use of its lands.
Although it has been questioned as to its accuracy at times, it still offers the only available uniform source of such information. Moreover, it has served as the basis for congressional budgetary and management decisions since its inception 25 years ago.
Our findings indicate that while total wilderness/
primitive area recreation in Utah has indeed increased over the last 20 years, such increase has not kept pace with the expansion of its acreage.
Forest Service data indicates that wilderness/primitive recreation use increased from 164,700 visitor days in 1967 to 479,600 visitor days in 1986 (up 191 percent).
At the same time, however, wilderness/primitive acreage increased from 240,717 to 778,001 acres (up 223 percent). In contrast, non-wilderness/primitive lands increased in use from 6,328,900 to 12,699,800 visitor days from 1967 to 1986 (up 101 percent), but decreased in acreage from 7,696,756 to 7,209,560 acres (down 6.3 percent).
How, then, should one interpret which change in use was more significant - wilderness/primitive or non-wilderness/primitive?
Comparing the total amount of visitation on wilderness/primitive lands to the total amount of visitation on non-wilderness/primitive lands is like comparing two fractions without first obtaining a common denominator.
This concept was applied to our study and usage was therefore expressed on a per acre basis.
By comparing use rates per acre over time, it allows one to observe what changes in use are occurring as a result of either increases or decreases in respective acreages.
This is a direct application of micro-economic theory. The careful application of this theory provides decision makers with information needed to determine how much value society places on an added increment of any given resource.
A year-by-year measurement of wilderness/primitive recreation use on a per acre basis revealed that peak use occurred during the 1979-1981 period. This occurred prior to the 1984 Utah Wilderness Bill's addition of roughly 12,000 wilderness acres.
In spite of this peak use, as well as the addition of acreage brought on by the 1984 legislation, the recreational use of these lands has declined at an average rate of 5.7 percent since 1977.
In contrast, however, recreational use of Utah's non-wilderness/primitive lands has increase 2.4 percent annually.
Bauman made the point that acreage estimates used in the study were not consistent with legislated values.
We appreciate his point but emphasize that year by year acreage estimates reported by the Forest Service were in accord with respective reported annual use.
Furthermore, had we consistently used acreage estimates based on legislative figures, the average annual rate of use would have shown an even more dramatic decline than 5.7 percent on wilderness/primitive lands.
We recognize that legislation is being introduced for the possible additional designation of nearly 5.1 million acres of Utah's BLM lands to wilderness.
Our research findings neither condone nor condemn the addition of wilderness acreage in Utah. Indeed, numerous values may be associated with the designation of wilderness.
Our research merely challenges the common perception that designating lands as wilderness will result in increased recreational use or tourism.
All these points considered, we feel confident that this thesis is capable of standing on its own merits.
Those interested in a more detailed account of our findings are welcome to refer to the thesis now, or to an upcoming publication in the near future.
(Kim Christy is a former master's degree student in the department of economics at the University of Utah. Godfrey served as his major professor.)