Putting a Value on Wild Lands

Near the end of 2010, the Interior Department tried to revive the idea that keeping public lands wild might serve the public interest. But House Republicans have made quick work of that idea. They defunded the policy in April, and although the Obama administration could have picked it back up again once the next fiscal year started, Interior announced yesterday that it had given up on its wild lands policy.

Interior's work will now revert to figuring out what each tract of public land is best used for. Framing public lands policy in that way favors the interests of oil and gas companies, who have that much more room to argue that public lands should be opened to drilling. The Wilderness Society points out that Interior didn't include "the public" on the list of interests it would consult with while moving forward on wilderness policy.

For years, the value of preserving wilderness has come down to "conservation." And there is value in keeping nature for nature's sake. But as the country loses more of its tracks of wilderness, it's becoming more apparent that wilderness benefits us in more direct ways. It keeps people healthy by cleaning air and water, for instance. In Virginia, the government is trying to put a price on that value. That's tricky, though: the market isn't great at valuing those less obvious benefits. The government, however, should be able to say, "We're not sure exactly how much this wild land is worth, but we know it benefits the public enough to keep around." But now that's not even an option.