You are here

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.


Kurt, great post and great quotes. Let me add another Leopold quote -- one of my favorites: "One basic weakness in a conservation system based wholly on economic motives is that most members of the land community have no economic value. ... When one of these non-economic categories is threatened, and if we happen to love it, we invent subterfuges to give it economic importance." -Aldo Leopold, 1949 .... and a quote from Muir: Nothing dollarable is safe, however guarded. - John Muir I do not like NPCA's approach for they have clearly fallen into the dollarable trap. Scott

Kurt, I'm sorry for neglecting to respond to your response on my previous blog post. It wasn't for lack of interest. I'd like to respond here to what you are writing, which is very interesting. I don't think many will be brave enough to criticize the focus of the tact that NPCA uses in defense of the parks. However, while I agree with you somewhat on the notion of "intrinsic value", which though never as simple as it sounds, does call into question a utilitarian analysis of parks value, I don't necessarily agree with your historical assessment about the National Park Service. I think you are missing the focus of the early NPS aim when you slide over the notion that the commercial use of the Park was only to be "incidental to the accommodations and entertainment of visitors." That incidental commercialism turned out to be the primary focus of NPS strategy to maintain its political program. Visitor services and tourism, as well as the "management" of tourists, became the modus operandi of the Park Service for decades (and to some extent still exists). It wasn't that commercialism was taboo; it was the kind of commercialism. Take for instance Grand Teton National Park. The main supporters on the ground for the Park and later its extension into Jackson Hole were dude ranchers and rich industrialists like Rockefeller, those who profited or could profit from the scenery. The NPS cultivated strong relationships with these people. Whatever feelings that people had about preserving the Park for its intrinsic value, the instrumental value of visitor services and tourism always took precedent in building the political base necessary for the preservation of the Parks. The NPCA is simply building off a traditional argument used by the preservationist lobby in building coalitions. When one looks back to the founding of a park like Yellowstone, we all know it was the nation's richest financier, Jay Cooke, who was behind the Northern Pacific Railroad until the Panic of 1872 (which was orchestrated by enemies of Cooke) sent him into bankruptcy, who understood that preserving Yellowstone was good for business, that you could not sustain the economy of the railroads simply from the raw materials industry. You needed people who needed a reason to ride the railroads again and again. The preservation of parks was incidental to the instrumental value of those who wanted to monopolize the trade. Now, if the parks have a value outside their instrumental value, which I think we agree they do, I don't think we are going to find that argument from traditional NPS allies like the NPCA, and we are certainly not going to find it from the NPS themselves. The game of real politik requires them to promote parks in terms of their instrumental value on any number of fronts. Now, while at the same time most of the people in the NPS truly work to preserve those same parks, they are still caught in the pickle, and as we have seen, the instrumental value wins out time and time again. It's probably the reason so many of us have known and grown to love Yellowstone; our acquaintance is a direct result of a choice made based on some other instrumental value (the automobile, the interstate highway system, the air system, the campground and hotel system, etc.) As I've said elsewhere recently, I think this means we need to think in wildly different terms, or we have to accept the inevitable decay of the Parks under the compromises to a system that only understands instrumental values (often for the sake of other instrumental values). Okay, I think I've made my point. Again, what you wrote is very interesting, and I think it opens up all kinds of avenues of discussion. Thanks for pointing us to the NPCA report.

Jim, I'm not asking folks to criticize NPCA. The organization plays a vital role in protecting the national park system and advancing its goals. But perhaps their report would "go down easier" if the group had married the two concepts -- economic impact and intrinsic value -- rather than breaking things down into pure dollars and cents, tangibles that I think resonate more with commercial interests and gateway communities that actively lobby Congress, not the hundreds of millions of park visitors. The point I was trying to make was a general lament that in today's society it seems we fail to understand and fully appreciate the intrinsic value of an institution such as the national park system unless we somehow attach a dollar number to that institution. And when it comes to that, I think we've lost something as a society. I don't think I'm misstating the early focus of the NPS mission when I point out Secretary Lane's writings. You're absolutely right about the railroads' interest in leveraging Yellowstone and later Glacier to generate passenger business. But if you read "The Birth of the National Park Service" by Horace Albright, it points out that Albright was actually the creator of Lane's letter. In working on drafts, Albright consulted with the likes of the Sierra Club, the National Geographic Society, the American Civic Association, and the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, not the railroads, not concessionaires. As for Rockefeller's involvement in Grand Teton, he didn't approach his land accumulation as a way to further line his pockets, but as a true philanthropist, one concerned about the increasing trashiness of the land surrounding the initial Jackson Hole National Monument. This is made clear in Albright's book. Too, Rockefeller's general philanthropist bent was made clear in 1941 when, during a radio broadcast on behalf of the USO and the National War Fund, he recited a lengthy set of principles that guided his life. Among the list was the following: "I believe that the rendering of useful service is the common duty of mankind and that only in the purifying fire of sacrifice is the dross of selfishness consumed and the greatest of the human soul set free." Is my suggestion, that we should invest in the parks simply for their intrinsic values , naive in today's world? No doubt to a certain degree. But again, if the only things in life that matter are those with a dollar sum attached to them, we are worse off as a society, don't you think? In the end, I think you're absolutely right in stating that, "...we need to think in wildly different terms, or we have to accept the inevitable decay of the parks under the compromises to a system that only understands instrumental values..."

I find mention of the "economic value" of a park or other place of natural, scenic or historical value to be very disquieting. I understand the NPCA's direction on this. Big conservation groups often tend to latch onto the economic value of something as a way of buttressing more eco-centric arguments for preservation. But I still find it disquieting.

There is nothing wrong with coming up with several different arguments as to why the National Parks are worth funding. Conservationists and park visitors will like the argument over the intrinsic value of the park. People who live and work in the area may be more likely to be convinced by the economic argument, particularly if land they had relied on to make a living from logging or mining is now being 'locked up' in a national park. The same duality of reasons was used for the space program. Some were convinced to fund it because of the scientific knowledge that could be gained. Others were swayed by arguments that things invented for the space program would be useful and profitable here on earth. Valuing the parks by dollars and cents is also useful when areas of the parks are damaged. I'll use the Hetch Hetchy valley as an example. Currently, the city of San Francisco pays a measly $30,000 per year to dam up and use the water of the Tuolumne River. When the administration wanted to raise that 'rent' substantially, Senator Feinstein balked and the rent remained low. She used economics; i. e. the water users of San Francisco cannot afford to pay more. The same argument is used as to why it is economonically not feasible to remove the dam. These arguments work because there is no counter economic factor with which to argue. If the environmentalists who want to take down the dam had some practical dollars and cents figures to show that the millions it would take to restore Hetch Hetchy would pay off in dollars and cents in increased revenue to the surrounding communities, then people and legislators would be more likely to support it. Similarly if the government had shown that San Francisco's sweetheart deal on the water was costing taxpayers and the people of the surrounding communities millions of dollars in lost revenue, there would be an additional constituency to fight it. Clearly, sometimes the economic argument is not going to win the day. The airport on Grand Teton National Park land may be more valuable to Jackson Hole than more quiet acres of national park. But if an economic argument can help parks by adding another constituent group lobbying Congress to support the parks, then more power to it.

Wow, good discussion...I don't think I can get to it all and do it all justice. But, discussions are good that way, we can meander in and out like a beautiful trail. First of all, Kurt, I don't think we'll soon agree on Albright, Rockefeller, and their relative value to the parks. I am not fond of philanthropy as a virtue (which may be shocking - I'll explain another time), by and large, but even if I were, I'd hesistate to call Rockefeller a philanthropist even in the case of Grand Teton National Park. He did ultimately run concessions there; he did manage to get private land inside the Park that remained under the control of his family, and he used every method he used as an oil monopolist in order to run smaller landowners out of their property in Jackson Hole. No doubt his own motives were complicated, and the preservationist instinct fit well with his exploitative ones, but if it is cynical of me to be so hard on Rockefeller, it's probably at the same time much too romantic to see him as a hero of the movement. I think that's even more true of Albright, who is something of the paradigm government bureaucrat, moving from the public sector to cashing in in the private. Now, Albright did have distinct preservationist ideas that put him at odds with the Pinchots and other multi-use advocates, but Albright himself had his own preferred corporate friends and vision for what the Parks should be. I think the basic argument that using the instrumental value of "serving the visitor" through a tight control of its commercial aspects (Albright and Mather were the ultimate proponents of monopolies in the national parks) was the mechanism through which their own preservationist vision might be obtained. The problem was that those two instincts were often at odds with themselves. As time would show, what was good for one, often turned out to be bad for the other (bear feed lots, bison in pens near the roads, Mission 66, and the list goes on). For that reason, I don't "buy" kath's argument. No doubt, you are right kath that you can often form great coalitions this way, using multiple arguments to appeal to multiple constituencies, much like the Forest Service promoted multiple use in order to form its own political coalitions. However, I guess my ultimate point is that the intrinsic and instrumental values are often at odds with each other (that's not the point I started with - my point to Kurt was simply that one shouldn't be surprised that NPCA made an instrumental argument; it fits well with the history of the NPS and its allies in NPCA). I don't believe for instance that the growth of gateway communities is a measure of the benefits that the National Parks provide. I don't believe that you can actually make sound cost-benefit analyses, and even if you could, that they would get at sound policy in respect to the parks. If you do make those arguments, then you find yourself doing strange things, like convincing yourself that bioprospecting is okay or that snowmobiles might not really be all that bad. Or, that Montana's canned hunt really is a good idea as a means of bison control. Building consensus this way often produces a lot of disaster in the long run. Hetchy Hetch is an ironic example to be using for the type of argument you suggest, isn't it? Back to Kurt for a second, I don't think you and I are far off in our point of view; I think what ultimately divides us is our relative optimism or cynicism toward the historical forces that have brought us to our current situation where we find reports like the one that have come out of NPCA. Of course, I tend to be a bit cynical even of Muir, Leopold, and that set of people as well, though for different reasons. Because I believe that intrinsic value abounds in many different places and ways, I find the issue to be much broader than how we normally take it. Our use of power in order to enforce particular values ultimately tramples all over other values many of us dearly hold. That's why I'm suspicious of the NPS, of the environmental movement at large (especially the large NGOs; not so much the grassroots groups), almost just as much as I am towards the corporate powers that would destroy everything we love; they use the very same paradigm of power. And, that's what breaks my heart; that places like Yellowstone are treated like feudal fiefdoms. It's that system that creates such a world that I lose a lot of sleep over, whether it's the homeless person on the streets of my city, the bombs exploding in Iraq or Palestine, the oppression in places like Oaxaca, the depression in places like Pine Ridge, and the plight of the beautiful lands that are our national parks. I think Leopold was onto part of the problem; I just don't think he grasped the scope of it (though a land ethic is a huge scope; it's not big - or small - enough really). I suspect that also begins to get at why we are saying different things though our hearts are in the same place. For all the criticism in my point of view, you all are saying a lot of very worthwhile things to say. These are the sorts of discussions we need more of as we try and act in this world. Jim PS I have posted a little bit more frustration over the NPCA report on a somewhat different angle at

Saw some programs recently on the plight of wildlife in Africa and India. The tigers of India's national parks are being poached to extinction. Same with the elephants in Kenya. The key to stop this, according to the conservationists there, is to convince the local people that having tigers and elephants will bring them prosperity. That tourism is a longer term, better way to feed their families than poaching. Now I suppose they could argue that elephants and tigers are beautiful animals and that extinction is forever, but that argument hasn't stopped the killing. If your goal is saving the wildlife, use the arguments that work. Same here. If you want to protect the national parks, use the emotional argument or the economic argument or both, whatever is likely to build the consensus.

ANY argument is good to help the National Parks. Just use the right one when you talk to the different people. I only need one: I always have a great time when I visit one!!!

Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide