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Placing An Economic Value on National Parks


    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.


The Fee Demo program was introduced in 1996 I feel certain that Bill Clinton was in office at that time. Cyclic maintenance funding for the supposed backlog is making it's way to the parks although it doesn't show up in the base budget... Look at how much money is spent by the NPS from all sources compared to what was being spent a decade ago, then try to explain why they must reduce the number of employees. I cannot keep track of it and I doubt anybody else can either....or they don't want to.

That's all I ever hear from this Administration..."it just takes time"! It's been what six years, and the Bush Administratiom has done absolutely nothing that notes that progress is being made in the National Parks towards deferred maintenance...where was the accountability when Katrina hit New Orleans? Our Parks new help now...not political rhetoric!

Kurt, Sorry if you thought I was slamming this blog, I enjoy this blog and read it on a daily basis. The real point I want to bring forward is that although the NPS and their supporters constantly complain about flat budgets and reduced manpower the truth is spending in some of these parks has INCREASED exponetially. The perception that budgets remain flat is created with the old smoke and mirrors trick. As a for instance Yosemite has had a 100% increase in their base budget since 1990. They also have in excess of 18 Million in project budgets. Now how about talking about the Yosemite fund which has set a goal of 16 Million for this year. The term soft money is an everyday term in Park management circles....sounds like politics to me. Speaking of politics you slam the "current Administration" for these funding decisions. The current administration is not the blame for creating this monster. Fee Demo has been around a lot longer than W. I will concede that this administration had the opportunity to do away with fee demo and didn't. But to give credit where credit is due this administration has done an enormous service to the public by making the NPS move toward accountability for its maintenance budgets through FMSS. The promise to move forward on the backlog cannot and should not be fulfilled without documenting what the backlog really is. The parks are moving forward in this process but it takes time.

Kurt, your right on with your comment!

Wait a minute, Parkaholic. This blog and a strong majority of its readers are not ignoring what the current administration and Congress are doing to our park system with their funding and management decisions. Quite the opposite. If anything, this blog from the very first objected to those funding and management decisions. Indeed, I launched the blog with hopes I might in some small way educate and inform the general public as to what's happening to the national park system. Too, this blog has also voiced support for the NPCA and other advocacy groups. That support doesn't necessarily waiver when I question the way those groups go about their efforts.

What is truly unfortunate is that while we beat up organizations that are in this instance telling it like it is, we ignore the trend of our government and the Park Service itself to favor development for financial reasons. The Fee Demo program is working much like our lottery systems in that it generates huge amounts of money that go into publicly popular programs. The Park Service says this funding alternative is vital to the survival of the parks due to flat budgets. What really happens is that Fee use monies are utilized to pay for many services that used to be covered in the budget. Meanwhile that budget money can now be used elsewhere. So while budgets have remained flat (Yosemite's budget has doubled since 1990)Monies from concessions and entrance fees have nearly doubled spending in some Parks. I firmly believe that Uncle Sugar should remove entrance fees, contribute concessions fees to the General Fund and then provide the funding to operate the Parks efficiently and effectively.

Jim, You raise some great points and issues, ones that deserve deeper thought and contemplation, ones that certainly exceed the realm of the national park system. The cynic in me says we'll never reach the social equilibrium you outline, primarily because of economics. Humankind has, like it or not, created a greed-inspired economic system that infiltrates just about every walk of life. It certainly has infiltrated the public lands stage, where various groups point to others as elitists for their views on snowmobiles and wilderness. Yet I think it would be easy to flip the coin and argue that those who ride snowmobiles and want to open wilderness areas to ATVs and ORVs and argue for more user fees to "improve" these areas are elitist. I wholly agree with your point that economic studies such as the one issued by NPCA could cause more harm than good in that it, essentially, argues in favor of more economic development alongside the parks. What we need to support, I believe, is not economic "development" but rather economic "sustainability," a level that caps current development at current levels (at the worst) yet provides a good return for all involved. If we somehow could achieve that goal I think the communities would be healthier, the parks would be healthier, and the ecosystems would be healthier. Will we ever reach that point? I fear not.

If my goal were simply saving wildlife, you might do whatever it takes, the rest of what you screw over to get there be damned. If by saving wildlife, I have to destroy the habitat in which they exist, I'm not interested. If by saving wildlife, I have to contribute to a classist, racist society, then I'm not interested. Almost every social movement I can think have has been hurt because one segment of it sold out and deeply hurt other related causes for short term gain. Woman suffrage happened much later than it needed to happen when there was a split in the women's movement forced by the black (male's) voting rights movement (it's traditional allies) when they found out the so called "radical" Republicans would only support black suffrage. Some woman suffrage activists chose to remain in the coalition in hopes that it would soon mean attention to their cause (ended up being a 50 year mistake) while others like Susan B. Anthony found themselves in the uneviable position of OPPOSING the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, one so celebrated today, on the grounds that it institutionalized sexism into the constitution. For short term victories and narrow causes, don't make deals with the devil that end up hurting so much and may not even work. "If your goal is getting weapons of mass destruction out of Iraq, take out Saddam Hussein." Well, ummm...sounded good at the time. Or, let's put this back in national parks terms, if you want to "save the elk," set up feedlots in a National Elk Refuge. That one actually worked and worked so well that many other animals (including future elk) have been hurt by the narrow-mindedness of the choice. It's never simple, and the choice is never premised by "If you want to save wildlife." If it's obvious that the choice contributes heavily to some other great social injustice, it should not be done. It's why I have tended toward the view of environmentalists who want to take humans pretty much out of the equation except to figure out how to get them out of it. It's not that humans aren't a part of nature, it's that our social and economic system is uniquely incoherent and self-destructive. It's as though we have to take humans out until we deal with that root disease before we can all figure out how to go back in. Now, of course, that analysis is simplistic because there's no vacuous box you can put all humans to get things together. Look, all I'm saying is that not every argument "is good to help the National Parks." Many are very bad arguments no matter who the audience is. I go further than Kurt. I think the arguments used in the NPCA report are very destructive arguments; you cannot use a utilitarian metric in order justify policy toward the parks; those metrics are always loaded and woefully incomplete (given the openness of the system - I mean, hasn't the problem with "ecosystems" studies been that there are no closed, self-contained systems - that they always are influenced by the entire universe of connections?). Using arguments like the NPCA will encourage MORE not less development around the parks because we will have tacitly endorsed the reasoning behind the report, that economic growth is good, that anything that someone might pay more for, passes a cost-benefit analysis, and that the more economic impact on local communities, the better. Ummm...that's going to produce a nightmare scenario for all of the national parks. That's frankly, crazy, and whether it saves some wildlife, I can't say, but it will send a whole lot else down the river. In the end, I don't think it will even save the wildlife, since there's always something "new and improved" based on someone else's terms of analysis. My original point were that these very bad arguments shouldn't have been surprising given who was making them and the history of the organizations involved, a view over which Kurt and I disagree. I didn't intend to make the larger argument behind it, that the arguments in fact are much worse than Kurt is willing to admit, but kath's posts have forced me to come out of my box and put my cards on the table. I hope we all still agree that there are intrinsic values involved that should be highlighted. I realize kath is pessimistic that intrinsic values will convince people for whom certain instrumental values work much better, but to that, I think we must challenge ourselves to understand why. In many cases, that's because there is more intrinsically involved in the situation of others than our own particular issue. There are related injustices that have gone unaddressed and not spoken to...In DC, how can I tell people not to join the military when I haven't spoken at the same time to the condition of poverty on the streets here? Or, back in parks terms, how can I tell people to treat Rock Creek with respect when that same NPS is making sure that homeless in DC aren't allowed to sleep there? There are often multiple issues that must be spoken to that reach to greater issues. Rockefeller faced such resistance because he was the monopolist savior whose word meant more than the average woman or man living in Jackson Hole. Whatever the merits of his view on that one issue, he was resisted because of what his tactics represented. He was not speaking to the condition that the people in Jackson suffered under. That people shouldn't have another's destiny in their hands is another intrinsic value, I think. And, it's at that level we can change the terms of arguments. We don't need to bribe people for their support in order to screw them over; that's how we always do things, and it's not working, quite frankly. We need to care for other issues, other injustices just as much, and that I think will begin to change and inform what it is we are working for. Leopold's land ethic begins to move us in that direction, (though his idea is actually quite borrowed from many other philosophers of the past). It enlarges the moral community to include even the land itself. If we at least start with the idea that our moral community (and therefore our moral issues we consider) are broader than we imagine as our starting point, then we will be served well, and we will serve the wildlife well also. Jim

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