What’s A Park Worth?
Last year’s federal shutdown focused attention on both the economic and intrinsic value of parks.
By Virgil G. Rose
Late last year, our national parks, along with the rest of the federal government, were closed for more than three weeks. During that time, a hue and cry was heard from nearby communities and businesses about the economic hardship caused by the federal shutdown. Communities net to national parks lost millions of dollars in tax revenue and profits; small concessioners were pushed to the verge of financial ruin; park rangers’ salaries were delayed; and the U.S. Treasury lost as much as $2 million because the National Park Service (NPS) was not collecting entrance fees.
The Interior Department calculated that gateway communities and surrounding regions lost $14 million in tourism revenues each day the parks were closed. Many towns in which parks are the largest source of income were financially devastated. Mariposa County, near Yosemite National Park, reportedly lost as much as $10,000 a day in taxes; 1,600 jobs disappeared; and hotels and restaurants sat virtually empty. Similar horror stories were repeated around the system. Goodwill also suffered as potential visitors, many from overseas, missed an opportunity to experience some of America’s greatest
wonders. The Interior Department estimated that 383,000 people were turned away from national parks every day of the 25-day shutdown.
The national parks lost other things, too, during the closure things distinct from the Park Serviec, gateway communities, or the concessions industry, and not measureable in hard numbers.
They lost some of their revered status in the American culture. National parks traditionally have been revered as “the best idea America ever had,” and closing them for
even one day should be unthinkable. When the parks did close last year, a clamor arose, and Congress subsequently hurried to reopen them. Many park advocates saw this move as a comfronting reaffirmation of the parks’ political inviolability.
On closer inspection, however, a disturbing theme became apparent. Many people, and members of Congress in particular, wanted to open the parks only because they make money. For example, the Park Service, using a “money generation model,” has
calculated that the parks pump about $10 billion annually into the economies of their regions.
But using this information as the primary reason to keep the parks open is misleading and dangerous. Even if national parks made no money, we should be thankful they exist and do everything possible to keep them open, fully funded, and professionally staffed. The money, no matter how great, does not begin to match the nonmarket work of even the lesser known sites of the park system: the Obed Wild and Scenic River, one of the last remaining wild rivers in the East; and Lava Beds National Monument, where volcanic
eruptions created a natural fortress used by the Modoc Indians to fight off the U.S. Cavalry in 1872.
But the parks lost something else during the shutdown something that will be harder to recover than revenue; the care and protection by the parks’ stewards, the men and women of the Park Service.
Because of the nature of the society in which they exist, parks require constant tending; without it they will gradually erode and disappear. Closing parks and prohibiting entry of employees deemed “nonessential,” such as rangers, scientists, and interpreters, is as thoughtless as building fences around the parks and walking away. We could wall off the cathedral redwoods of John Muir National Monument and let strip malls creep up to the edge, but it would no longer be a park; it would be a doomed refuge under siege. A Yellowstone National Park bordered by mountains hollowed out for mining, watered by streams filled with acidic wastes, and surrounded by forests pockmarked with clear cuts would not be the park we want to preserve.
If the price of freedom is constant vigilance, as Thomas Jefferson said, then the price for national parks is constant commitment. The men and women of the National Park
Service know that better than anyone. They live in substandard housing and work long hours for low wages in difficult conditions to protect the resources we too often take for granted. If the government shutdown taught us anything, it is the danger of complacency. Park Service rangers, biologists, interpreters, and historical experts are the first line of defense, essential to ensuring that parks will exist for future generations. By locking NPS employees out of their jobs, Congress unfairly diminished their role and put the entire National Park System at risk.
It is often said that national parks are our natural and cultural treasures. But do our elected officials really act as though they treasure these parklands? Based on their response when the parks were taken away from us, the answer is no. They value them, but they do not treasure them. I value many material things, but in most cases only because of what they can do for me their practical utility. I do not think about the needs of my computer, for instance. I use it hard every day, and when it wears out, I will trade it in for a new one.
In contrast, I treasure a drawing my daughter Julie made in the first grade, and an old coin my father gave me. They are irreplaceable no matter their cash value. How many of us lavish time and effort caring for and preserving the things we cherish, often well beyond what a “rational” economic analysis would recommend? These are only inanimate objects, yet they mean something more to us than dollars and cents. How much more devoted should we be to our national parks?
Places that are now national park units molded us into a nation. Sometimes they made our hearts sing. At Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, Francis Scott Key was moved in 1814 to write our national anthem. And sometimes they made our souls cry. At Manzanar National Historic Site, thousands of Japanese-Americans were
interned during World War II for no crime other than sharing the same race as an enemy nation.
Looking across the landscape of the park system is like peering into the stars to see how the universe began. Stand at the top of Kill Devil Hill on a windy day and you can hear gulls mock the Wright brothers as they wheel out a clumsy flying machine to attempt what no one has ever done before. Turn your attention 1,500 miles to the west, and hear the ring of the sledgehammer as the transcontinental railroad line is joined at Promontory Summit, Utah, in 1869.
As an engineer, I was taught about things that could be counted and measured precisely, but in the debate over the government shutdown too little attention has been paid to the park values that cannot be added up on a calculator. Many noneconomic values are associated with national parks keeping our history alive, preserving wildlife and natural wonders, safeguarding our cultural icons and we need a new yardstick to measure them. Fortunately, the Park Service is taking the first steps toward that through a program focusing on social science, including “green” economics, in the parks. Putting a price tag on resources that are inherently noncommercial seems to devalue them in our profit-conscious society. We must not let that happen to our parks.
This raises the question of whether in 100 years our great-grandchildren will treasure Yellowstone or simply value it. The answer depends on what we do today. If we promote national parks because they make money, our descendants will preserve them only until a more lucrative use comes along. But if we acknowledge that the meaning and worth of national parks comes from elsewhere, if we stress that national parks are important because of what they teach us about ourselves, then perhaps our children will treasure them and the hopeful phrases of the legislation establishing the Park Service will come true: “To conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objectives and the wild life therein and to leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
Virgil G. Rose is chairman of NPCA’s Board of Trustees.
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Copyright 1996, National Parks and Conservation Association