Commentary: What Would An Economic Stimulus Package for the National Parks Buy Us?

Mug House, Mesa Verde National Park, Kurt Repanshek photo.

Good investment? Mug House would be a great attraction at Mesa Verde National Park....if the National Park Service had the money to restore it and open it to the public. Kurt Repanshek photo.

Ever since the phrase "economic stimulus" was launched last year, there seems to have been more and more clamoring for these kinds of bailouts, or incentives, or infusions of capital, or whatever you want to call them.

Conservation groups haven't been silent in this arena, either.

Not long after Traveler reported back in November that various "green" groups had collaborated on a wish list for the environment, one that had plenty of suggestions involving the national parks, we began to hear that there was work under way to outline an economic stimulus package that would benefit the environment, including the national parks.

Later this week -- Wednesday to be specific -- the groups will hold a news conference to explain what they see as "an opportunity to invest in ready-to-go, job-creating projects that would restore America’s national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, and fragile ecosystems as part of the nation’s economic recovery, as was done in the 1930s."

As an example, the National Parks Conservation Association notes that at Great Smoky Mountains National Park an investment of $4.2 million could bring all 94 of the park's restrooms into ADA compliance. At Valley Forge National Historical Park an investment of $927,615 would cover repairs and restoration of Stirling's Quarters, which was the headquarters of Maj. Gen. Lord Stirling and Major James Monroe. At Grand Canyon National Park a $15 million investment would provide badly needed employee housing in the form of eight, eight-plex multiple family housing units in an area now occupied by 10 trailers.

These are not bad things. But the NPCA's 12-page document highlighting the needs of the National Park System generates just a dollop of uneasiness.

One concern is the need to wrap the parks up as so many economic engines, that the reason they deserve an economic stimulus in part is to help kick-start pockets of the economy around the country. Indeed, in the NPCA's document subtitle after subtitle addressing proposed infusions is followed first by the words, "to create jobs," and then by the specific need, whether that be repairing a road or providing an ADA ramp to a restroom. That's all fine and good, but what happens when the economy turns around but national park funding does not? Then how might groups lobby for the parks' needs?

But then, the folks at NPCA well know that they have to sell this package to the incoming Obama administration and that in the economy's current state, well, jobs sell.

The second concern deserves to be delivered on a silver platter not just to the incoming administration but to every member of Congress: The National Park System is a key part of our national heritage, and it shouldn't have been allowed to tarnish so. Indeed, the NPCA drives that message home in its report:

These places tell the American story -- and our personal stories. These are the places where we forge family memories and in doing so, bond with our nation as a community.

Most importantly, national parks are our legacy to our children and grandchildren; protecting the national parks means that we are protecting our legacy for the future.

The National Park System is a poster child for years of insufficient investment in our nation's most significant assets.

For years, America's national parks have sustained chronic shortfalls in critical federal funding needed to adequately staff and maintain visitor centers, campgrounds, and museums, and keep parks safe and accessible for all visitors. National parks on average received only two-thirds of the needed federal funding annually -- a system-wide shortfall of $750 million every year.

If the green groups can garner an economic stimulus package for the parks, good for them. But let's not buttress that package on the notion that we should invest in the parks primarily for the economy's sake. True, the parks are indeed powerful economic engines. If you doubt that, just ask any chamber of commerce in a gateway town what would happen if their park went poof! the next day.

But national parks shouldn't need to be portrayed as economic saviors to gain our country's necessary and prudent investment. They should be properly kept up because they are central to our nation's heritage.

Now, if an economic package is approved for the parks, let's be careful with it. Let's focus on repairs and restorations and curatorial needs and not go on a spending spree of new facilities and roads.

And, if Congress deems such investment worthy, let's hope it also realizes the pitfalls of neglect and gets serious about properly funding -- not just adding to, but actually funding -- the National Park Service and seeing that our tax dollars are wisely spent. Let's hope that we one day soon no longer need to talk about the Park Service's staggering backlog or mention "Centennial Challenges" with hopes it will buy some polish for the system in time for the agency's centennial in 2016.

Rather, let's properly invest in the parks just because it's the right thing to do.

Comments

First, I would like to commend Kurt on his outstanding picture of Mesa Verde National Park. I've never been there, and the picture has convince me I should go.

I don't understand why we need a stimulus package to get ADA compliance for national park restrooms. Seems to me when the federal government passes rules, that they should budget compliance for all federal facilities including National Parks.

"...if an economic package is approved for the parks, let's be careful with it....if Congress deems such investment worthy..."

An economic package for the parks is not an "investment". To invest is to save or to defer consumption. Congress appropriates money, which is taken forcibly from from taxpayers, borrowed from foreign creditors, or printed through the inflationary process.

Jees, Frank, I pay my taxes, realizing that I get services for them. I don't regard that as forced extraction.

Rick Smith

I definitely think that stimulus package money put into National Parks would be an investment. It would be an investment in the people employed on stimulus package projects, who would not otherwise be employed. It would be an investment in the future availability and desirability of our parks. It would be an investment in quality of life for our children and grandchildren. All investments do not have to have a monetary return, though even there I am sure that many projects will cost less if done now, rather than put off to inevitably be done later.
Having said that, we should not spend money frivilously. Backlogged projects should be completed, maintenence brought up to date, before we even consider any new projects.

Jees, Frank, I pay my taxes...

You make it sound as if you have a choice. Try not paying them and see what happens.

...realizing that I get services for them.

Services such as a $700 million embassy in Baghdad, hundreds of thousands of maimed and murdered Iraqis, bridges to nowhere, and a 80,700 pages long Federal Register.

C'mon, Frank, not every cent (most perhaps, but not every) of taxes goes to waste...heck, if it weren't for Federal need-based student aid such as Pell Grants, I wouldn't be in college right now.

Frank never saw a government program he liked. It's useless to point positive things out to him.

Rick Smith

Take from one to give to another. The mantra of modern democracy.

It is the "positive thing" that Rick Smith claims Frank C can't comprehend. The fact that the government has no wealth of its own but can only confiscate it from productive members of society and redistribute it to others is a concept that seems to fall on mostly deaf ears in this forum. It seems that as long as this ill-gotten booty is used to "stimulate" a pet project or cause that NPT readers agree with the ends certainly justify the means. This is the very essence of our socialist present and a hallmark of the welfare/warfare state we have come to know as modern Amerika. It is derived from the same mob rule impulse that facilitates bloody war, bailouts of failed and corrupt corporations or the doling out of Pell Grants to slacking deadbeats.

The distortions this kind of political chicanery causes to the natural flow of a free economy is constantly ignored as various interest groups fight over the use of this mis-allocated wealth. The fact that most readers of this site are dedicated to a socialist government model of park administration means that they have relegated themselves to being nothing more than just another competing mob attempting to steer loot to their particular area of special interest. H.L. Mencken's observation that "Every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods" is as valid today is is was almost a century ago when it first appeared in print.

Fortunately the end is near as the federal government is totally bankrupt and its creditors are about to stop lending it any more money by refusing to buy treasury debt which has been the fuel of the current reckless borrowing and spending spree. The Feds will try to print their way out of the predicament but that will fail miserably and the final day of reckoning will be upon it. By the way, that day is not too far in the future.

President Obama is about to preside over the end of an exhausted and depleted empire. It is time for those of us who love the parks to honestly look at other avenues of administration for the national park system. It would be wise to have that discussion now before its present owners auction them off in a fire sale the likes of which the world has never known.

Come on, Bemis, how many real socialists are regular readers of NPT? And how many of us spell our country's name "Amerika"? The Pell deadbeats will protest your exaggerations.

Rick Smith

They may protest but how many will be using their own money?

Back on topic -- one thing I do want to point out is a lot of NPS sites are also in areas that don't have much else in the way of economic development other than tourism, and tourism does suffer during economic downturns. So rehabilitation of parks could be a good thing for those areas, help keep some people employed, help keep some hotels, restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts, and the like from going under. And let's face it, most parks need a lot of work.

Honestly, agree with its value or not, Depression-era CCC projects are still standing in a lot of park sites, providing facilities for decades and decades and decades.

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My travels through the National Park System: americaincontext.com

Honestly, agree with its value or not, Depression-era CCC projects are still standing in a lot of park sites, providing facilities for decades and decades and decades.

By the same token Hitler's autobahns are still standing and have provided solid service to the German motoring public for decades and decades and decades. Ain't national socialism great?

By the same token Hitler's autobahns are still standing and have provided solid service to the German motoring public for decades and decades and decades. Ain't national socialism great?

Awesome non sequitur!!!

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My travels through the National Park System: americaincontext.com

And how many of us spell our country's name "Amerika"?
I believe it was originally inscripted as Amerikkka in accordance with the ultra-conservative movement in the Deep South......

Take from one and give to another isn't your precious democracy, whatever the hell that is, it's RobinHoodism at its basest level, aka. Social communism.

Maybe one should aspire to dwell at the economic levels at which Pell recipients dwell prior to ANY criticism of the system. Or maybe you care to "broad brush" that notion along with the equity of the GI Bill that placed so many returning servicemen and women through your glorious and elitist collegiate ranks, and the first time home-buyers assistance programs that placed some of your "unequals" into private housing. And our own Gen./Pres. Eisenhower, who last I heard wasn't ever mentioned as our version of Lil' Adolf, designed and initiated construction on quite the American Autobahn, to which we'll be FOREVER paying to reconstruct and expand as some USDOT idiot sees fit. It is NOT government that is inherently bad.......it's the corrupt American bi-partisan and special interest laden system that needs to be gutted flushed and redesigned. Since we, as human beings, whatever THAT connotes, continue daily to exhibit our inability to act responsibly and respectfully in the basest efforts of day-to-day living, we leave little option but to be forcibly led under some manner of regulatory body. Let's at the very least construct a system by which the equity places ALL on the same level playing field and eliminate the elitist rule of the current system.

And let's not be too exacting with our definitions. While investing can indeed, in part, meet the criterion of "save" or "defer", it just as well can be defined as “improvement” or caching for use at a later time, not simply deferring / preserving for time immortal, and should not in the least be inferred as solely within the limited scope of the term as it pertains to conservationist overtones. Restoration is investment, as is the process of modernization to current standards / codes to enable long-term stabilization.

But by all means, as I've stated in no uncertain terms in previous discussions, do NOTHING on the "wish list" of wants until the current maintenance backlog needs and all their related issues have been successfully eradicated from the docket.

It is NOT government that is inherently bad.

Washington, who wrote that "government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master", would disagree. So would other Founders and philosophers.

Take from one and give to another isn't your precious democracy

Democracy has evolved into what some Founders, such as Franklin and Jefferson, warned: war of all against all. With the fall of the Republic and its replacement by a progressive democracy, we have seen the advent interest group politics, and people vote for those who will take from those who have to give to those who have not.

And let's not be too exacting with our definitions

Should we instead engage in doublespeak? "War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength"? Consumption is investment?

I guess the operative inference was in pointing to "our" definitions. For simplicity sake we often refer to things in "our" terms, but clarity and understanding could be obtained by utilizing more exacting terms, which neither include double entendre nor doublespeak. Therein lies a major issue with "our" version of the English language.......too many definitions for the same terms, many of which can be used to bolster opposing viewpoints to the general confusion of the issue at hand.

While General George and many of his peers so frequently quoted within the posts to this site are no specific heroes of mine, it could also, and just as accurately be stated that many other of that group (the Founders) and of philosophers (dating to Plato) would disagree about the intent and responsibilities of government, dating back to the earliest influences of political structures founded by most "Western" societies. All of those positions on BOTH ends of the spectrum were derived from various periods in time quite unlike the current circumstance in which we exist. Previous civilizations dealt with a multitude of issues no longer relevant to our "modern" society, and around such issues opinions were formulated and expressed. Franklin, for one, expressed his fears that the governmental structure being established in the mid-to-late 18th century would only be able to be sustained by a virtuous society; that very societal composition which he also stated could not sustain itself given the nature of mankind, whom he observed to be corrupt by nature, as has been demonstrated across time and geography and has found a "universal truth"; Jefferson (and others) views on the slavery issue are evidence of outmoded thought processes. So I don't think Ben would qualify as one of your stronger supporters of our current "democracy", progressive or otherwise. And for clarity sake, Ben favored a Republic modeled after the Roman pre-Caesar era council. At least, that's what he wrote in his papers. Finally, as we stand and debate the merits of our current political cesspool, in the larger picture isn't a society, ANY society, sans governmental or some other method of directional structure akin to anarchy?

In closing, a much belated Happy Holidays to you all. At least I sincerely hope they were for you. Now, back to the bloodbath!

"Fortunately the end is near as the federal government is totally bankrupt and its creditors are about to stop lending it any more money by refusing to buy treasury debt which has been the fuel of the current reckless borrowing and spending spree. The Feds will try to print their way out of the predicament but that will fail miserably and the final day of reckoning will be upon it. By the way, that day is not too far in the future.

President Obama is about to preside over the end of an exhausted and depleted empire. It is time for those of us who love the parks to honestly look at other avenues of administration for the national park system. It would be wise to have that discussion now before its present owners auction them off in a fire sale the likes of which the world has never known."

You may be surprised to learn that many of those you label as "socialists" agree with some of the basic points you make, particularly in re: to our economy and the difficult times ahead. However, you should acknowledge that our situation was caused, in part, to a lack of adequate controls on the market and excessive consumerism. Indeed, the greatest economic malpractice and runaway deficit spending occurred during Republican administrations. It was Bush/Cheney who urged Americans to go out and shop rather than make personal sacrifices following 9/11. Insofar as national parks are concerned, they are a commonly shared heritage of all Americans and should be managed as such. I will likely never visit most of the parks that my taxes help to support, but they are nonetheless my heritage and deserve my support. Taxes are essential if our nation is to function. We have every right to demand that our tax dollars be used wisely and efficiently and that they be fairly levied. However, with all its faults, our government and our nation needs and deserves a share of the money we gain, in part, due to the fact that we are Americans.

our situation was caused, in part, to a lack of adequate controls on the market

That's a total myth.

Government intervention is what has caused the current financial mess.

The excessive consumerism is encouraged by government, well, the quasi-governmental cartel of bankers known as the Federal Reserve. "Stimulating" consumption by pumping trillions of printed and/or borrowed dollars into the economy will not help. Letting the free market set interest rates and encouraging saving and real investment (not some pseudo, inexact definition of investment) over spending will help. Ending inflationary monetary policy will help. You're right about the deficit spending under Bush, but Obama has promised trillion dollar deficits as far as the eye can see. Government deserves the blame, not some illusory "free" market.

Taxes are essential if our nation is to function.

How was nation able to function for the 137 years prior to the income tax?

However, with all its faults, our government and our nation needs and deserves a share of the money we gain

Wow. Scary statement. "Needs"? "Deserves"? Orwellian.

"A wise and frugal government, which shall leave men free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor and bread it has earned -- this is the sum of good government." --Thomas Jefferson