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Why Fully Funding The National Parks is a Good Thing

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Daniel Hummel
August 22, 2020

Picture from the Grotto Trail in Zion National Park in Utah (photo belongs to the author)

There is a natural beauty in the United States that former generations were wise enough to protect. Today, these parks and other protected areas are wonderful places to visit. Unfortunately, they have also been neglected over time in which appropriations to the National Park Service have remained flat at $3 billion annually. This is less than .1% of Federal outlays. By some estimates, there is $12 billion in deferred maintenance in the parks with some estimates even higher at $20 billion. According to a 2019 Property and Environment Research Center report, 40% of roads in the parks are in either poor or fair condition. The trails need at least a half billion dollars for repairs. The lack of funding has jeopardized the parks. Consider what happened last year at Joshua Tree National Park during the month-long government shutdown with limited staff in the park. Irresponsible visitors to the park damaged the Joshua Trees with some estimating that it will take 300 years to recover.

In the shadow of the pandemic, more spending on the parks may seem a luxury. If this is so, President Trump and the Congress in a rare show of solidarity did not agree with Trump signing the American Outdoors Act on Tuesday, August 4th. This authorizes an additional $3 billion per year for the National Park Service to help with the deferred maintenance and other projects. Some have considered this the most significant contribution to the parks in half a century. Although this comes up short on addressing all the needs of the parks, it is a step in the right direction.

People value the parks. In 2016, researchers from Colorado State University and Harvard University completed the first economic valuation of the National Park Service lands and programs. Using a technique known as contingent valuation, which was first used to value outdoor recreation in a Ph.D. dissertation in 1963, the study authors found that survey respondents valued the land, water, sites and programs at $92 billion. Survey respondents were both users and non-users of the parks indicating that even non-users value their existence and maintenance.

Further, the Bureau of Economic Analysis released a report in 2017 that found that outdoor recreation accounted for more than $400 billion to GDP in 2016 or 2.2% of the United States economy. Not only do people value the parks in hypothetical surveys, but the outdoor recreation that comes with them significantly contribute to the economy. I have written about this before in PA Times Online with the use of water trails and other outdoor amenities for local revitalization.

At the beginning of the pandemic, some called for the parks to shutdown in order to slow the spread of the virus. The CDC released a report in July 2020 recommending that the parks be kept open noting that exercise is important for protecting the body and limiting the damage caused by COVID-19. In addition, the report recognizes the benefits of visiting the parks for mental health. Before the pandemic, 46 million Americans suffered with mental illness according to a 2017 National Institute of Mental Health report. The pandemic has made this worse in which quarantining is associated with poor mental health. Getting outside in any capacity is a good thing. Visiting the national parks is part of this.

Visitation to the parks has increased over the years in which it has increased 4 times since the 1960s. As the pandemic continues, many are reconnecting with the natural beauty of the country by visiting the national parks. The parks have been enforcing social distancing measures such as in Zion National Park, where a shuttle takes visitors to trailheads throughout the park. Access to the shuttle is limited—tickets for the shuttle ($1 each) are sold within minutes of availability. Everyone on the shuttle is required to wear a face mask. Some trails have been closed, such as Angel’s Landing, because they do not allow appropriate social distance.

The national parks are needed now and in the future. The recent legislation has shown this commitment, and with some visiting these parks for the first time, many will return inspired to protect these wonderful places. Personally, I have been able to visit many national parks from Ohio to Utah and my commitment to them grows with every visit. Each visit is a renewal, a necessary boost to help me to understand my place in the world. Sometimes I am reluctant to leave, but I know as long as these places are protected I can always come back.


Author: Dr. Hummel is an assistant professor in the Department of Nonprofit Management, Empowerment and Diversity Studies at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania. He teaches classes on civic engagement, program evaluation and financial decision making. His email is [email protected]. You can also visit his website: www.hummel-research.com.

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