We currently have more than 715 million acres of protected lands, but today they face severe threats to their continued existence. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

Across the United States, more than 715 million acres of wild lands in thousands of holdings are protected, thanks to measures such as the Wilderness Act of 1964. Today, however, those protected lands face a number of threats, including budget cuts, the extraction of resources—such as drilling for oil and fracking for natural gas—negative ideology and climate change.

A new study published on February 24, 2015, in the journal PLOS Biology, however, shows that national parks and nature preserves bring in far more money than governments spend on them for conservation. The study, titled Walk on the Wild Side: Estimating the Global Magnitude of Visits to Protected Areas, states that although only $10 billion is spent on maintaining the protected areas, more than eight billion annual visitors generate an estimated $600 billion in tourism revenue.

Even setting aside, then, the proven psychological, physical and spiritual benefits that wilderness provides, does cutting budgets for the conservation of protected areas make sense in economic terms?

Near Grand Teton National Park, oil and gas development block the pronghorn migration. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

Economic impact overshadows current expenditures

This study—one of the first data-driven analyses of nature-based recreation and tourism on a worldwide scale—was conducted by researchers from Princeton University, the World Wildlife Fund and the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. In order to gauge the economic impact of visits to protected areas, the authors examined visitor records from 556 parks across 51 countries from 1998 to 2007. They then used models to extrapolate the numbers for the world’s 94,238 protected sites (omitting Antarctica, ocean preserves, very small sites and those that don’t welcome tourists).

Protected areas in Europe had the most estimated visits per year, at 3.8 billion. North America came in second, with 3.3 billion visits annually. The North American visits to protected areas alone amounted to at least $350 billion a year. That’s more than 35 times the worldwide total of less than $10 billion spent each year to safeguard protected areas.

The study’s authors concluded that the money spent conserving our wild areas is grossly insufficient. Even without considering the many other benefits that protected areas provide, the economic impact and value of visits to such lands far surpass the current expenditures. In other words, by underinvesting in conservation, we take on a great economic risk. Substantially increasing investments in protected area maintenance and expansion, on the other hand, would yield significant economic returns.

Drilling operations in Pinedale, close to the Grand Tetons, have been linked with regional air pollution. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

Yet, protections are being abraded

Unfortunately, wild areas around the planet are now experiencing extreme challenges. In England, public lands are being sold off; and in Brazil, 10 percent of national parks and indigenous lands face mining threats.

Here in the United States, Wyoming’s boom in natural gas and oil development is causing habitat fragmentation and the blocking of the pronghorn migration from the Upper Green River Valley near Grand Teton National Park. Concentrated drilling operations in the Pinedale area south of the park have been linked with regional ozone problems, with pollution levels high enough to cause respiratory problems. In Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, oil rigs can be seen from several parts of the park, and natural gas flaring has punctured what was once one of the darkest night skies in the entire national park system.

In my own state of Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker has introduced a plan to freeze spending until 2028 for land purchases from the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund, a monetary reserve that has protected more than 650,000 acres in the state over the past quarter of a century. The proposal was introduced despite the fact that the cost of maintaining the fund works out to a negligible $.27 cents per Wisconsin resident per week, or about $14.00 per year. Other states are facing similar scenarios.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota once had one of the darkest night skies in the national park system. But now, light pollution from gas and oil development surrounding the park is visible in some areas. ©Amy Meredith, flickr

In light of this new study, do you think cutting funds to conserve public lands is a risk worth taking, or is it economic folly? Are there bills proposing the degradation of protected areas where you live?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,