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To hear Utah Congressman Rob Bishop, chairman of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee, tell it, wilderness protection is single-handedly devastating Utah's economy.

This is nothing new: Bishop has been making this same claim for years. But I was surprised recently when several Democratic Congress members seemed to blindly accept the premise that wilderness designation represents a "war on Western jobs."

Why have wilderness supporters conceded this point and chosen to debate only the relative merits of wilderness versus economic growth? This is a mistake. It is worth asking first whether there is evidence that wilderness protection slows growth.

In fact, the economic literature on this issue is mixed. It is not clear whether wilderness designation helps or harms local economies in the rural West. This includes work by state and federal agencies, and researchers around the West, including researchers at Utah State University and Westminster College.

Job losses in extractive industries, where they occur, tend to be offset by job growth in other sectors — and on other indicators of economic health, the effect is ambiguous.

Wilderness opponents seem to grossly overestimate the impact wilderness will have on grazing, mining, oil and gas industries, as well as the importance of those sectors to Utah's economy. In turn, they underestimate the value of wilderness for recreational purposes, for ecological diversity, for job creation and as an investment in the future.

Considering the confidence with which many of Utah's elected officials proclaim the negative effect of wilderness, I assumed there must be a landmark report on the subject that I had missed.

I consulted a report co-written by Congressman Bishop, hyperbolically titled "The War on Western Jobs" and found virtually no evidence inside.

In fact, the report ignores survey data — some of which was published in 1990 by Arden Pope of Brigham Young University — that shows support for additional wilderness among a majority of Utahns, though opinions vary throughout the state.

I systematically searched academic and government databases recently in an attempt to find the reports on which Bishop and others were basing their dubious claim. I found very little evidence that wilderness harmed Western economies.

I contacted Gov. Gary Herbert's office, Rep. Carl Wimmer, an anti-wilderness Utah legislator, Congressman Bishop, the Congressional Budget Office and several state agencies requesting information that would corroborate their claims. I never received a response to any of my inquiries.

I am left to conclude that there is no solid evidence that wilderness designation actually harms Western economies. The simple fact is that we do not know yet what effect wilderness has.

My own back-of-the-envelope calculations using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggest no effect, but we need better studies.

A year ago the Utah Legislature set aside $3 million for a court battle its own lawyers said it would lose, in an attempt to wrest control of Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service lands from the federal government. Much of the motivation was to prevent designation of more wilderness, because of the prevailing view that it harms the economy.

But, instead, the Legislature should consider funding a comprehensive, nonpartisan study of wilderness' impact and options to mitigate that impact.

There are many capable researchers at Utah universities who could conduct such a study, for a fraction of the $3 million legislators were willing to throw away to make a point.

At least then our elected officials would know the real effects of wilderness on local economies, both positive and negative, rather than making unsubstantiated claims that fly in the face of most research on the subject in the past 20 years.

Brenton Peterson is a former Utah resident and a doctoral student in politics at the University of Virginia. He is conducting research on the interaction of environmental degradation and rural economic development.