Mike Matz: Why Wilderness Makes Perfect Sense

Your Wilderness - July 2012

Mike Matz is director of Pew's Campaign for America's Wilderness.

Exciting things happened in the last month that cast a shining light on public support for, and the economic benefits of, protecting wilderness. These events reaffirmed the view that these places are important as a legacy for future generations.

On the summer solstice, Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) introduced legislation to designate 126,554 acres of wilderness in the Olympic National Forest and to establish 464 miles on 19 rivers in the national forest and Olympic National Park as wild and scenic. The proposal has been years in the making and is supported by more than 100 businesses; a dozen past or present county commissioners and mayors; the vice president of Taylor Shellfish Farms; and the president and CEO of Paneltech International, who is the son and grandson of loggers.

The same week, a new report was released by the Outdoor Industry Association, a business group representing sporting goods manufacturers, that offers a reasonable explanation for this shift.  Its findings are eye-popping. Outdoor industries provide 6.1 million direct jobs and $646 billion in consumer spending to the economy—the latter ranks behind only financial services and health care in contributions to the national economy. Americans spend more annually on bikes and bike trips ($81 billion) than we do on airplane tickets ($51 billion). The 6.1 million people employed directly by the outdoor industry number more than those in the oil and gas industry (2.1 million) and construction sector (5.5 million). With average salaries for the various outdoor-related jobs—retail, marketing, distribution, management—ranging from $30,000 to $150,000 annually, these positions are good-paying and highly sought after. While most sectors contracted during the economic downturn of the past few years, this one grew by 5 percent. The economic engine represented by the outdoor industry, the report concludes, depends entirely on quality places for people to fish, hunt, hike, and camp.

Impressive as these polling and economic numbers are, they represent the facts and figures that appeal to the rational side. But what tugs at the emotional side is having opportunities to get out and take in America's great outdoors, sharing that time with others, and understanding our responsibility to leave behind places where our children and grandchildren can enjoy big trees, clean water, clear skies, and wild animals, whether on the Olympic Peninsula or elsewhere.

The week before the Olympics wilderness legislation was introduced, my brother and I, along with our families, were among the towering redwoods of Northern California. We strolled through Stout Grove, 44 acres of old growth, and another day hiked six miles on a trail past more of these magnificent sentinels, including the massive Boy Scout tree. My 3-year-old daughter skipped along a good portion of that trail, while my 10-year-old son and his cousins led the way past sun-dappled ferns and around banana slugs to a serene waterfall, where we lunched and gazed in wonder.

The numbers are fine validation. But the experience of walking through trees that have been around since Alexander the Great's armies expanded the Greek empire is incalculable. Knowing that those stands will be there for the future—and 94,000 acres of trees that have never been logged are part of the Olympics wilderness bill—makes a huge difference. That's what makes kids' eyes pop wide open.

View pictures from Olympic National Forest