Spanning nearly 2 million acres in Washington’s Cascade Mountains, Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest (MBSNF) is “a $1 trillion asset” according to a new report released Tuesday by The Wilderness Society.
The key finding of the report: The MBSNF provides between $3.8 and $30.8 billion in ecosystem services (benefits that contribute to people’s well-being like clean air and water and outdoor recreation opportunities) to Pierce, King, Snohomish, Skagit and Whatcom counties, a rapidly growing region in Washington state. When considering the cumulative value provided by the forest over the next 100 years, the study puts the asset value at an estimated $159 billion to $1 trillion.
The analysis, conducted by Earth Economics and funded by a grant from the Bullitt Foundation, sought to determine the intrinsic value of the MBSNF’s natural resources, including its water, clean air, food and timber, at a time when the region’s information technology, leisure and hospitality, healthcare and other industries are growing.
“These numbers matter at a time when we’re seeing unprecedented attacks on our public lands, from attempts to open up pristine forests to timber harvest, to proposed drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” said Kitty Craig, Washington state deputy director for The Wilderness Society.
To quantify the MBSNF’s ecosystem services, study authors analyzed how the forest’s natural resources (like minerals, plants and animals) and natural processes (like the water cycle) combine to provide benefits to the region each year.
Among the 21 benefits they identified, some fall into the category of natural processes, such as the way the forest’s wetlands minimize floods and its forests regulate greenhouse gases. Others fall into the category of economic contributions, including the fees paid by recreationists visiting the MBSNF’s campsites, hiking trails and backcountry ski slopes.
Beyond highlighting how much outdoor enthusiasts pay to visit the MBSNF ($191 million per year), the study also estimated the influence outdoor recreation has on the region. The authors determined that in 2015, the 2.2 million people who visited the MBSNF spent an estimated $79 million in trip-related expenditures within 50 miles of the forest. On a related note, the study found MBSNF supports a total of 504 outdoor recreation jobs in Whatcom, Skagit, Snohomish, King and Pierce counties.
The Wilderness Society study comes on the heels of other studies that draw attention to the economic influence of the outdoor recreation industry. Earlier this year, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis released its first statistics on the economic impact of outdoor recreation, with a finalized report expected this fall. A 2017 report by the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) found that the outdoor industry accounts for $887 billion in annual consumer spending.
“Public lands and waters are the outdoor industry’s basic infrastructure, and without them the industry cannot survive. Preserving access is imperative to enhancing the industry’s economic and social impact,” the 2017 OIA report noted.
This latest study by The Wilderness Society highlights the disparity between the value of the MBSNF and the federal dollars currently being invested in the United States’ national forests. For example, a low estimate puts the ecosystem value of the MBSNF at $3.6 billion per year (this excludes the outdoor industry’s influence), while the annual budget for the United States Forest Service is currently $4.73 billion. “Given the scale of public benefits that national forests provide," the study argues, "investment in these lands should be a priority for federal budgets, local government, public and private utilities, and other stakeholders.”
When asked about the positive impact studies like the recent one from The Wilderness Society can have on state and federal lawmakers, former Secretary of the Interior and former REI CEO Sally Jewell referenced a recent decision by Congress to form a $2.25 billion emergency fund to fight wildland forest fires.
“Those fixes come because politicians have tools in their toolbox to make the case for why that’s important. So [studies like] these do matter. … We’re making progress and these little shifts—these little steps forward—will help politicians have the cover they need to make the smart decisions on the budget,” Jewell said.
In addition to identifying the breadth and magnitude of the economic benefits of the MBSNF to its surrounding region in Washington state, the study also determined several key contributions which could not be monetized. These include a calculation that suggests that in 2015, more than 61,000 volunteer hours were recorded at the MBSNF and that visitors who engaged in physical activities in the forest burned a total of 3 billion calories.