Most of us have seen those credit-card ads that go something like "Fishing license, $40. Fly casting gear, $480. Reeling in a rainbow trout in the wilderness under a 14,000-foot peak: Priceless."
But dollar signs can be associated with these "priceless" activities. Let's start with the rainbow trout. Rainbows are native to the West Coast, but have been introduced throughout the Mountain West, with a big assist from national fish hatcheries operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Like any good federal agency, the Wildlife Service sends out press releases, including one that points out how "fishing for rainbow trout reels in big bucks." The agency commissioned a study by economist James Caudill, who examined stocking information from 11 national fish hatcheries in 2004 and evaluated the results.
As you might expect from a study commissioned by the people who operate hatcheries, these hatcheries provide a great return for taxpayers. The 11 hatcheries produced 9.4 million rainbow trout, inspiring nearly 4 million angler-days, which meant $172.7 million in spending on licenses, food, gas, lodging, tackle, etc. That spending supported jobs, and the workers paid taxes.
Add it all up, according to the study, and "every dollar spent on rainbow trout production rises up through the economy fueling $32.20 in retail sales and $36.88 in net economic value." So that rainbow on the end of the line isn't just a magnificent creature, or even a tasty main course for a pan-fried outdoor dinner; it's also part of an economic engine that can drive for the long haul, with the net value of $21.19 per fish.
What about the value of wilderness, or more accurately, nearby wilderness that you might see from a raft? Wilderness designation has been proposed for about 20,000 acres in Chaffee County in central Colorado. Years ago, it was identified as the Aspen Ridge Wilderness Study Area. But over time, it became the Browns Canyon Wilderness Study Area, even though all the land in question does not include the river in Browns Canyon. So even if Congress approves wilderness designation someday, the river would not flow through the Browns Canyon Wilderness. Browns Canyon is a popular place for whitewater rafting, though, so the boundary doesn't matter to at least one river outfitter, Joe Greiner of Buena Vista, Colo.
At a hearing on wilderness designation earlier this year, he said, "I want to be able to promote that. I think it would be a great marketing angle for us: 'Come visit Browns Canyon Wilderness.' "
Ah, wilderness, the "marketing angle."
As for the majestic 14,000-foot peak in the wilderness behind a trout stream, it, too, is an economic factor. Colorado has 54 peaks whose summits exceed 14,000 feet above mean sea level. Most don't require special skills or equipment to climb; endurance and common sense will do. Thus they're popular destinations -- so popular that tundra gets trampled and trails erode into gulches.
The Colorado Fourteeners Initiative is a nonprofit group that works to keep the big peaks from getting loved to death by educating climbers and establishing sustainable trails. In 2006, it worked with two recreation economists from Colorado State University to determine the economic value of having a big peak nearby.
After surveying climbers in Park and Summit counties, they learned that the average peak visitor spends $191.61 within a 25-mile radius, and a total of $221 on their Fourteener trip.
The view from the summit on a clear day might be priceless, along with that giddy light-headed summit exuberance produced by hypoxia, but now we also know that the Fourteener experience is worth $221 to the general economy.
In all these calculations and marketing angles, we seem to forget that so many people volunteer their time and energy to improve cold-water fisheries, preserve wilderness and care for some trampled mountains. That is truly priceless and a gift to all of us, though doubtless somebody will someday come up with dollar amounts. That appears to be the American way, after all.
Ed Quillen is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He writes and produces Colorado Central magazine in Salida, Colorado.