Can You Put a Price on American Beauty?

By Charles Landau, MPP, Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives 

Teddy Roosevelt wrote in 1912, “the establishment of the National Park Service is justified by considerations of good administration, of the value of natural beauty as a National asset, and of the effectiveness of outdoor life and recreation in the production of good citizenship.” In the context of the changing public policy landscape, it’s worth taking a look at how our land use plans are changing. New avenues for public input in the planning process could help to realize and preserve the value of natural beauty in our wilderness.

The incoming administration signaled that agencies with oversight of federal land and natural resource management will no longer emphasize climate change considerations in their decision making. In an earlier blog post, I stressed the need for data-driven public policy that takes climate change concerns into account. However, let’s assume that climate change is off the table for now, and consider where that leaves us.

Land conservation is largely a bipartisan issue; Republicans and Democrats alike agree preserving our national lands is important. Besides climate change, what should be the guiding principle when federal agencies decide how much to limit impacts on the environment? Of course, public health and safety as well as ecological impacts remain of concern. Such principles are important to consider given that the U.S. is rich with sparsely populated wilderness. To protect that wealth, policymakers should consider taking the natural beauty of a site into account before opening it up to development.

Even more recently, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation to revamp the process for federal land use planning with the stated goal of making the process more responsive to public input. The new legislation is expected to replace the Obama-era Planning 2.0 process and make changes to the overall land use planning process at BLM. The new land use policy would also align with the resource extraction policy of the new administration, which is expected to propose an end to the BLM moratorium [PDF] on resource extraction from federal lands some time this year.

When any one factor is considered more often than others in rulemaking, value is given to that factor. Agencies are often required to weigh the costs and benefits of an action or rule before they go ahead with it, and aesthetic beauty is notoriously difficult to put a dollar value on. The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) leases tens of millions of acres of federal land, and much of it is solely for energy development. Last year, BLM leased around 35 million acres of land – about the size of New York State. But even with that massive stake in our national land use, zoning and planning at the state and municipal level covers the overwhelming majority of land in the U.S. With so much land – and land use policy – in play at any given moment, finding ways to engage the public and protect the places they value can create exactly the treasure President Roosevelt spoke about.

If new land use legislation for BLM really does create more space for public input, it would be a tremendous opportunity to take into account natural beauty. With no reliable way to put a dollar amount on how beautiful something is, public input can help gauge the aesthetic value of our land. Doing more to leverage surveys, social media and public forums to suss out the public value of a land could be a good start. Policymakers at the Department of the Interior and elsewhere should encourage the public to engage on this topic so they can develop a meaningful process for preserving our most beautiful American lands.

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