Apparently, Mitt Romney told a crowd at a campaign event that he "didn't know what the purpose" of public land was. Well, that's a question that can be informed by behavioral research. Do people think there is a purpose to public land? And are they willing to put their money where their mouth is?
In America, one way we assess the value of something is to see whether people are willing to pay for it. Of course, people pay for public land in all kinds of ways - from entrance fees to national parks to vacation travel to premiums for property that is next to a forest or a beach.
Decades of more systematic and controlled research in psychology as well as in behavioral economics have tried to identify what it is that people value by asking whether they would pay for it. It turns out that people tend to express willingness to pay - either by increased user fees or increased taxes - for scenic beauty; for diversity of animal species; to protect habitat for the giant panda; to reduce invasive plant species; to protect biodiversity in urban areas. (This is just a sampling of the topics that have been investigated.) Perhaps the most striking finding is that people are willing to pay for aspects of the landscape that they would never be able to benefit from personally. This idea has been described as "existence value": we value the mere existence of things like the Grand Canyon, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and many other instances of nature that remain relatively unaffected by human activity.
I would never claim that the results of this research provide a comprehensive description of the value of natural landscapes. The ecosystem services are immense, having been valued at $33 trillion per year. Then there's the inspirational value. Think of all the poems and artwork that respond to natural settings. (My colleague Dan Bourne is one of many poets who reflect on nature. You can see a sample of his work here.)
The fact that people not only value, but express willingness to pay for, the mere existence of undeveloped lands suggests that they do have a point, if not a purpose. And that people are not quite as tied to economic value as we sometimes think.