Delicate Arch, Arches National Park, Utah

The Politics of Funding National Parks

Delicate Arch, Arches National Park, Utah
Delicate Arch, Arches National Park, Utah (Photo courtesy of Palacemusic on Wikimedia, background image by 2bgr8STOCK)

As we enter the peak of election season, partisans are drawing lines in the political sands of our national parks. A recent study draws attention to the voting records of Senators and Representatives in the 114th U.S. Congress, and the party lines are pretty clear. Nearly all Republicans earn an F in support for parks, while all but two of the A grades go to Democrats. Yet, while the parties are clearly divided over support for national parks, citizens are much more in agreement about valuing parklands. Another study by Harvard and Colorado State researchers reveals nearly 95% of respondents feel that protecting national parks is important to them. Voters seem much more in agreement about parks than just about anything else.

Concern about supporting parks comes at a crucial moment for the future of our park system. It’s no secret that the National Park Service has been sorely underfunded for decades. A $12 billion backlog of “deferred maintenance” seems to be the most widely noted evidence in lamenting the poor state of our park system. And since maintenance budgets remain insufficient, the Park Service notes, the number of deferred projects continues to rise. Perhaps it’s time for a political reckoning.

Park Funding in Historical Perspective

Americans love their national parks. But they rarely have been willing to provide enough money to protect them and keep up with needed maintenance and improvements. I have not seen historical studies on park funding, but I doubt there have been many years, if any at all, that national parks and monuments have had budgets adequate to all of their needs. As a nation we have not been very good at putting our money where our mouth is.

This stinginess over park funding goes all the way back to America’s first national park. When the 42nd U.S. Congress debated the Act Establishing Yellowstone National Park in 1872, budgetary concerns dampened some members’ enthusiasm. To gain passage of the Act, it took a solemn pledge from geologist Ferdinand V. Hayden, a chief supporter of the legislation, that the new park would not need any budget appropriations. When President Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill on March 1, 1872, Yellowstone became the first of our shamefully underfunded parks. It would be more than a half dozen years before Congress would appropriate any funds at all for Yellowstone, and then they allowed only a meager budget that proved far insufficient for the park. Indeed, the absence of political will to care for our parks has been an uncomfortable reality from the beginning.

Hard Choices about National Parks

Our unwillingness to commit sufficient resources to care for our parks is not entirely unjustified. The American people face difficult choices in divvying up our limited funds. As much as we may agree that our parks are valuable and worth caring for, we face hard choices about a range of other issues that need attention, many of them dealing with life-and-death concerns that make the parks’ needs seem less critical.

The “Total Economic Valuation of the National Park Service Lands and Programs” study by Harvard and Colorado State researchers presents clear evidence that Americans have high regard for national parks. Their analysis pegs the value of the national park system at $92 billion. Press reports, though, misunderstood their methodology and incorrectly concluded that Americans are willing to pay an additional $92 billion in income taxes to maintain our national parks and park service programs (see, for instance, Public Radio International’s story about the study). There is an important difference between establishing economic value of parks and determining if taxpayers are actually willing to pay for that value.

The study does not ask respondents to choose between priorities, which of course policymakers must do. In other words, sure, I think parks are valuable and I am willing to pay for them. But if you ask me to rank national parks with other concerns, then I’m less sure how important the parks are. Is preserving our national parks as important as making sure everyone has adequate health care, that children get a quality education, that neighborhoods are safe, and that nobody goes hungry? When we have to choose among the many social challenges that the nation faces, parks may not fare so well.

An Underutilized Resource

This is not to say that national parks should continue to go without adequate funds to ensure the protection of these treasured places. But we must first recognize their capacity for addressing other pressing problems. National parks offer an underutilized resource for retelling the American story in ways that bring communities together in caring for ourselves, our neighbors, and the natural worlds we live with and depend upon for our wellbeing. Our parks have potential for demonstrating how education, awareness, access, and justice can make a more peaceful, sustainable, and morally sound world for everyone. And this value, immense and ultimately immeasurable, more than justifies an investment in the future of our national parks. ♨

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