The Economic Impacts of Wilderness

Sometimes the debate about wilderness focuses on the fear of lessened local economic opportunities because of management constraints placed upon the federal land manager imposed by wilderness designation.  In a national park, concern may be about future visitation, how to accommodate those visitors, and who bears the cost and benefit of accommodating those visitors. 

Would wilderness help or hurt the economy of the park’s local gateway communities?

Focusing on Big Bend

Big Bend National Park already has a huge, beneficial economic impact on Brewster County.  In 2019, pre-COVID, the park counted over 463,000 visits, an estimated 98.8% of which were from people from outside the local area.  Park visitors are estimated to have spent over $41 million within a 60-mile radius of the park. That spending supported over 600 jobs in the local area and had a cumulative benefit to the local economy of $46.6 million. (1)

As the pandemic winds down and the economy re-opens, all indications are that visitation to Big Bend and other protected areas is increasing rapidly. The National Park Service (NPS) reports that visitation for calendar year
2021 is 25% higher than it was in 2019. Brewster County estimates an increase in hotel taxes of 15-18% over 2019.

While Big Bend National Park includes three developed campgrounds and an 72-room concession-operated lodge, most visitors stay overnight and spend most of their money in the gateway communities outside the park.  Lodging and camping outside park boundaries makes up over 75% of the 2019 visitor spending.  In-park lodging and camping is less than 4%. (1).

As of June 2021, there are 52 companies that provide commercial outfitting services or tours in Big Bend National Park, not including the park concessioner.  The vast majority of commercial river trips are provided by local outfitters.  While only 25% of the companies with permits are based in the three counties nearest the park, these companies earn 85% of the gross revenue that all of the outfitters, in aggregate, make from park-based experiences. 

Keep Big Bend Wild is in favor of keeping Rio Grande River access and all existing paved and unpaved roads open.  

The park’s major developments in the Basin, Rio Grande Village, Castolon, and Panther Junction would remain, and be maintained. Those areas would not be included within the designated wilderness and would continue to be managed as they are today. This would ensure that economic opportunities for local outfitters would continue, and likely expand with increasing visitation.  Similarly, outfitted trips on or off park trails that assist visitors to safely experience the Big Bend wilderness would continue.

The park’s 2004 General Management Plan (2) forms the basis for current and future park development and operations.  The plan recognized that the Department of the Interior had recommended that about 2/3 of the park be designated by Congress as wilderness in 1978.  An additional 62,000+ acres located in the North Rosillos addition acquired after the 1978 recommendation were likely suitable for wilderness as well.  The plan, which will continue to guide the park for the foreseeable future, calls for no significant additional development of facilities beyond what exists currently.  The areas managed as wilderness have no facilities beyond primitive trails and campsites, and that is not expected to change.

NPS intends to make major investments to rebuild the Chisos Mountains Lodge and the Basin’s water delivery infrastructure to address major safety deficiencies circa 2023-25, but will not increase the number of overnight lodging units.   The Lodge is located in the Chisos Basin and is also outside of the area to be proposed for wilderness designation.

Review of the Economics Literature

Most peer-reviewed studies of the economic impact of wilderness protection show that these areas stimulate economic growth in nearby communities – in the recreation/tourism sector, and by attracting new residents who want to live near protected areas.  Some studies show that people are willing to pay more to live in the proximity of protected wilderness areas. (3)

The 1964 Wilderness Act (§2c) (4) requires that any area designated as wilderness have “outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation”.  A robust outfitting economy typically exists to service users of these areas.  Recreation generates local economic value both in terms of visitor expenditures, and from jobs created, taxes paid, etc. from businesses and residents of the area who work in the tourism or outfitting businesses.  Commercial services appropriate for realizing the recreational or other wilderness purposes of these areas are authorized by §4(d)(5) of the Act.

But beyond the impact of the tourism economy, studies show that wilderness and wild, protected areas are in themselves draws for people who seek to be near these areas to live, not just to recreate.  “Wilderness also attracts entrepreneurs, retirees, and businesses looking to improve their quality of life by being closer to the scenic and recreational opportunities provided by wilderness.” (3)  Power (5) emphasizes that wild landscapes can be important to nearby residents and communities and that “wildland preservation” can be important in attracting both businesses and population to a particular area.

The Bottom Line for Big Bend

For while the vast majority of the acreage of the park is undeveloped and KBBW hopes to see those lands designated as wilderness, such designation would have virtually no impact on what people could do in the park.  It’s likely visitation will continue to increase, and permanent, official protection of the beautiful undeveloped sections of the park is likely to have a long-lasting positive impact on the economy of the park’s gateway communities.


(1) Cullinane T.C., and L. Koontz. 2020. 2019 national park visitor spending effects: Economic contributions to local communities, states, and the nation. Natural Resource Report NPS/NRSS/EQD/NRR—2020/2110. National Park Service, Fort Collins, Colorado.

(2) National Park Service.  2004.  Big Bend National Park General Management Plan.

(3) Holmes, T.P, Bowker, J.M., Englin, J, Hjerpe, E., Loomis, J.B., Phillips, S., and Richardson, R.  2016 (May).  A Synthesis of the Economic Values of Wilderness, Journal of Forestry, Volume 114, Issue 3, Pages 320–328.

(4) Complete text of the Wilderness Act.

(5) Power, T.M. 1992. P. 175–179 in The economics of wildland preservation: The view from the local economy. USDA For. Serv., Gen. Tech. Rep. SE-GTR-78, Southeastern Forest Experiment Station, Asheville, NC.,