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Opinion | Linda J. Bilmes

Invest in America’s parks

Yosemite National Park, Calif.
Yosemite National Park, Calif. (Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

The National Park Service — often called “America’s best idea” — celebrates its 100th birthday this summer. From Yosemite to the Cape Cod National Seashore, the 412 places protected by the agency tell the American story. Every study shows that Americans love and revere the parks.

The mission of the National Park Service sounds simple: to protect, “unimpaired,” the sites under its care for recreation and enjoyment. The reality is much more complex. The parks receive more than 300 million visitors a year from all over the world. Their annual budget has been shrinking: Today it is 15 percent lower than in 2001. Consequently, the National Park Service is fighting an uphill battle to keep the sites pristine and unspoiled in the face of tourism and increasing pressure from climate change. The agency has a mounting maintenance backlog that now stands at more than $12 billion.

The topic of how to sustain the park system into the next century in the face of these challenges was addressed recently by the Second Century Commission — a bipartisan group of 25 prominent park-lovers convened by the National Parks Conservation Association. The commission, which met regularly over the past two years, included former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor, civil war historian James McPherson, and oceanographer Sylvia Earle. Throughout our deliberations, we kept coming back to a fundamental question: How much are the national parks really worth?

We have known for decades that visitors to parks contribute to the economy of adjacent communities. But that is only a small part of the story. In particular, it doesn’t account for the value to people who don’t visit the parks routinely or at all. Such people nevertheless treasure the giant sequoias, Revolutionary War battlefields, wildlife, and iconic scenery.

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Our new study is the first-ever attempt to put a value on this. Our approach was to survey a representative sample of all Americans to find out how much they would willingly pay to preserve those assets for themselves and their grandchildren.

The study shows that Americans prize the existence of the parks, whether or not they actually visit — 85 percent of respondents said they personally benefit from the parks, regardless of whether they actually use them; 81 percent would pay higher taxes to prevent cuts to parks. Using this approach, Americans put a total value of $92 billion per year on our national parks, monuments, seashores, recreation areas — more than 30 times the amount that the federal government spends on the National Park Service.

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This $92 billion is a conservative figure. It doesn’t count some of the broader benefits of the National Park Service, such as carbon sequestration or watershed protection. Nor does it include the cool fact that “Star Wars,’’ “Raiders of the Lost Ark,’’ “E.T.,” and thousands of other movies and TV shows have been filmed on national park sites.

The public also places a high value on park programs — including education, conservation, and historical stewardship. Fully one-third of the $92 billion economic value of the National Park Service represents the public’s valuation of these programs. This finding vindicates the recent policy of the agency and its partners to focus on outreach efforts such as “Every Kid in the Park,” as well as on programs that bring the wonders of the parks to the public, such as webcams of bears and glaciers.

The agency gets its funding from a combination of visitor fees and an annual congressional appropriation. However, the $3 billion that this brings in is insufficient to maintain and invest in an asset valued at nearly 30 times that number. In short, the agency doesn’t have the resources to achieve its mission of protecting the parks unimpaired over the next century.

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In order to thrive, the National Park Service needs a new funding model that includes philanthropy and other innovative solutions. One solution embraced by the Second Century Commission is to establish a nonprofit endowment for the national parks that would function alongside federal appropriations. This endowment could help the agency invest in long-term efforts to preserve and restore historic sites, maintain ecosystems, and help to mitigate environmental threats that emanate from outside the park perimeters.

In addition, this year Congress should give the National Park Service a centenary birthday gift in the form of a one-time grant to fix the maintenance backlog. Clearly, the public would view this kind of spending as a good use of taxpayer dollars.

This summer, as we enjoy bird-watching in the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, hiking the Appalachian Trail, or swimming in Wellfleet, we should remember that the national parks are not just America’s best idea — but they represent one of America’s best investments.


Linda J. Bilmes, of the Harvard Kennedy School, and John Loomis and Michelle Haefele, both of Colorado State University, are coauthors of the study on national parks.

Due to an editing error, the original photo accompanying this piece was not of national park. The photo has been updated.