Capital Reef National Park at sunset / Bruce Tuten

June 30, 2016; Denver Post

In a study called “the first-ever comprehensive estimate” of its total economic value, the lands and programs of the National Park Service were reckoned to be worth around $92 billion to the American people. According to Professor Linda J. Bilmes of the Harvard Kennedy School, one of the researchers who led the study, this shows that Americans value the parks system at 30 times more than the federal government spends to operate it.

Researchers estimated the economic value of the parks by calculating how much people would pay to preserve them. On average, researchers found that each American household would pay $523.86 to keep the service from having to sell off land. In addition, 95 percent of Americans felt that protecting national parks was important, and 80 percent claimed they would pay higher taxes to ensure the current park system is protected and preserved.

This peer-reviewed study is part of a larger investigation examining the value of the parks in relation to ecosystem management, intellectual property creation, and education. It differs from the National Park Service Visitor Spending Effects model. That model describes how the Parks Service benefits surrounding communities in regards to providing jobs and other resources.

The study results come at a time when the National Park Service is currently operating with a backlog of an estimated $12 billion. Despite support from the National Park Foundation, chartered by Congress in 1967 to generate private financial support for the National Park Service, it’s become necessary to explore other avenues to help bridge that gap. Earlier this year, the National Park Foundation launched the Centennial Campaign for America’s National Parks, its largest-ever fundraising effort to raise $350 million. To help meet the goal, the Foundation has worked to secure corporate sponsorships. Currently, the campaign has raised $250 million. Even if the Foundation meets the Campaign’s fundraising goal, it will still fall short of the $12 billion backlog. As previously covered by Nonprofit Quarterly, the park service has looked to corporate sponsorships, including partnerships with American Express and Subaru, to help meet its operating budget.

While finances are a big concern for the National Park System, there is another call to action as its 100-year anniversary approaches. The Centennial Innovation Coalition has urged President Obama to issue a statement calling for a new vision for the parks system for the next one hundred years. The coalition, headed by a diverse group of leaders including Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), Rep. Ruben Gallego of the House Natural Resources Committee (D-AZ), and Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA), chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, sees that the fastest growing demographics in the U.S. are neither aware of nor enjoying the benefits of the public lands.

This study puts a very real number on what these national assets are worth in the eyes of the public. It also serves as a call to action for the government and the National Park Service to find different ways to preserve and protect these national resources for the next 100 years, and to find the financial means to keep them operating as the makeup of America changes. The government of today looks very different from the Congress and the president that created the National Park Service on August 25, 1916. Yet, despite these changes, the mission of the parks service seems timeless: to preserve the parks for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of current and future generations.—Kelley Malcolm