Beyond a Visit: How We Value National Parks
Stepping foot into one of our over 400 national park sites, we experience numerous benefits: beautiful scenery, fresh air and exercise, new knowledge and perspectives, history, majestic wildlife, and as any park lover can tell you, the list goes on and on.
But what about the value of our parks beyond the experiences of the hundreds of millions of park visitors? Is it possible for you to appreciate Katmai National Park & Preserve even if you haven’t had the opportunity to see its wonder and grandeur yourself? What about the value of knowing that your grandchildren will study the founding of our democracy at Independence National Historical Park?
How can we determine the worth of merely having the option to explore our nation’s most scenic and significant places – and the knowledge that their legacy will bear witness to our nation’s history for generations to come?
While it’s debatable whether you can put a price tag on our national parks, there is little question that they are sources of tremendous value for Americans. A 2016 study announced by the National Park Foundation found that our national parks and their programs are conservatively worth around $92 billion in total economic value, including $28.5 billion in recreation use value for national park lands, waters, and sites.
But the recreational value of our parks is just the tip of the iceberg. For the first time, this study establishes that over half of the parks’ total economic value stems from the public knowing that the parks and their assets are protected for current and future generations, regardless of whether they actually visit. This means that over half of the total economic value of our national parks is unrelated to benefits experienced directly by visitors.
This non-use value can be broken down further into option, existence, and bequest categories. While some Americans choose to spend their time elsewhere, they still value having the option of recreation at our national parks someday. They might also feel what the study’s authors define as existence value – simply knowing that the parks exist to tell our nation’s story, even if they don’t personally use them. Finally, the study found that 95% of American households value the preservation of national parks so they can experienced by future generations – also known as their bequest value.
Remarkably, the option, existence, and bequest values account for more than half of our national parks’ total economic value, and make a strong case for their continued protection and stewardship. Together, they speak to the power of our iconic landscapes and cultural and historical sites, and their substantial role in our national heritage. These concepts of value are important as we consider the worth of national parks not only in terms of the people who visit them, but just as significantly, for those who don’t.
Photo credits: Katmai National Park & Preserve by Drew Hamilton, National Mall & Memorial Parks by Scott Crawford; Cuyahoga Valley National Park by Amjad Zwaid via Share the Experience Photo Contest.