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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.


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.

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