There's a report out today that touts the economic impact of the national park system. Compiled for the National Parks Conservation Association, the 46-page report defines and underscores the economic might of the parks.
The bottom line certainly sounds impressive: Not only is the national park system responsible for $13.3 billion annually in local private-sector economic activity, but "the national park system generates at least four dollars in value to the public for every tax dollar appropriated for its budget."
"This economic study provides hard evidence that national parks generate tremendous value for our economy, and our communities," says NPCA's president, Tom Kiernan. "National parks improve our economy, and our quality of life."
Now, it's well and good to know the economic impact of the national parks. And perhaps that's something that Congress needs to be reminded of to convince it to improve funding of the National Park Service.
But have we reached the point where we need to point to economic value to save the park system? Don't the 390 units of the park system have enough intrinsic value to justify their existence, without one having to determine their dollar value to argue for their continued support?
Don't get me wrong. I'm not criticizing the NPCA for paying for this study. As I said upfront, it's an impressive report, particularly when you realize that the cost-to-benefit ratio of Acadia National Park is 14-1 when you compare its FY2004 budget of $7.1 million to the $100.4 million in recreational benefits it generated. Point Reyes National Seashore had an identical 14-1 cost-benefit ratio, while at Zion National Park it was measured at 10.5-1.
Too, the economic analysis points out that gateway communities and counties surrounding parks have lower unemployment rates and higher per capita income and overall growth compared to their respective state averages.
"The U.S. National Park System provides national economic benefits far in excess of the public cost of maintaining and operating them, and parks are an important engine for local jobs and income and are a substantial driver of economic growth," the report's authors conclude. "Federal support of NPS is a wise economic investment."
Over at NPCA, the folks hope those numbers convince Congress of the need to see that the Park Service is fully funded.
"The fact that our national parks create a great return on investment should both inspire Congress to invest more, not less, in the parks and give them concern that if the park system is allowed to continue to deterioriate it will result in less visitation and smaller economic benefits to park communities and regions," says Ron Tipton, NPCA's senior vice president for programs.
No doubt. But I would hope that a sound argument can be made that, regardless of economic statistics, investing in the national park system is wise for this country.
Why was the national park system created in the first place? It wasn't with the primary intention of economic gain. In fact, in giving marching orders to Stephen Mather, the Park Service's first director, Interior Secretary Franklin Lane specifically laid down that, "Every activity of the Service is subordinate to the duties imposed upon it to faithfully preserve the parks for posterity in essentially their natural state."
"The commercial use of these reservations, except as specially authorized by law, or such as may be incidental to the accommodations and entertainment of visitors, will not be permitted under any circumstances," Lane wrote on May 13, 1918, in a letter that Horace Albright, who would succeed Mather as NPS director, years later said "became our basic creed."
Society's penchant to assign a dollar figure to just about anything can in many cases obfuscate what's truly important, and that's what I'm afraid this economic report might do. By placing dollar values on the parks we run the risk of slighting those that don't, or simply can't, measure up to a Yellowstone or a Grand Canyon. We make it easier to say, 'Well, the economic return on that park isn't worth it's continued upkeep.'
Rick Smith spent 31 years with the Park Service, working at various times as the assistant superintendent of Everglades National Park, as superintendent of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, and as associate director for natural and cultural resources in the Park Service's Southwest Regional office. When I broached this latest economic report with Rick he replied that, "...the attempt to hang an economic number on parks reminds one of the old adage about 'knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.'"
Rick went on to recall a speech he once gave about the intrinsic value of national parks. With thanks to him, I recall some of those words here:
"I like to think about natural parks as reservoirs where natural processes still continue. Outside the parks, we have modified these processes, adapting them to the needs of civilization. Only in wild places do the forces of evolution still go on in a more or less unmodified way.
"Science has not yet found a way to duplicate or replicate these processes. Interrupt them and we interrupt the evolutionary processes responsible for all life, including our own.
"... Natural parks are the last refuges in which modern people do not operate on a fixed schedule. A visit to one of these parks is one of the last things we do at our own pace. We discover things and perceive relationships based on our own rate of understanding. No one attempts to fill up our schedule and sell us a book of tickets that have to be used by 5 p.m. that afternoon. Natural parks then are very different. We live in a world of rigorous schedules, urgent meetings, and important meetings. In our parks, we can take off our watches, turn off the boom boxes, log out from our Blackberries and cell phones, and live life attuned to biological rhythms, not to the pace of human enterprise.
"This idea of contrast has been very important to wilderness philosophers. Many believe that as the contemporary world becomes more complex, frantic, and plastic, its inhabitants will need contact with places where nature is not altered and where they can contrast the values and pace of their everyday lives. That's why we need to be so careful in the planning and construction of park infrastructure such as roads, visitor facilities, concession buildings and the like.
"We simply cannot allow them to become monuments to the architects or to glorify or accentuate the moment."
In closing his comments to me, Rick cited a section from Aldo Leopold's landmark work, "A Sand County Almanac":
"Let me tell you of a wild river bluff which until 1935 harbored a falcon's eyrie," wrote Leopold. "Many visitors walked a mile to the river bank to picnic and watch the falcons. Comes now some planner of parks and dynamites a road to the river, all in the name of recreational planning. The excuse is that the public formerly had no right of access; now it has such a right.
"Access to what? Not access to the falcons, for they are gone."
Is it nice to know that our national parks are responsible for so much economic impact? Sure. But we shouldn't let those numbers obscure the real value of the parks. That value, quite simply, is their continued existence in a form as close to possible as how they came to be.