What It Means to Be Priceless

Julie SegerNPF Blog
High contrast sand dunes at Death Valley National Park
– Raghuveer Makala, Share the Experience

After seeing the results of a 2016 study, which found that our national parks are worth a whopping $92 billion in total economic value, many park lovers have responded, justifiably, that our national parks are priceless. We at the National Park Foundation agree, as of course no dollar figure could ever fully capture the value of these places and all they encompass: magnificent natural resources, iconic historical and cultural sites, and the promise of telling our national story for generations to come.

And yet, while the $92 billion total economic value of our national parks is impressive, it is not the study’s most significant takeaway. In fact, the study’s real weight comes from its parsing out the unique and previously undocumented types of value that we derive from these special places.

Man holding a fish in both hands showing young students on a boat

Nature Impact Grant in action at Great Egg Harbor Scenic and Recreational River

Dawn Kish

Take, for instance, the remarkable finding that more than half of our parks’ total economic value is attributable to their mere existence, with Americans appreciating these places regardless of whether they visit.

Another finding of note: how strongly we as a nation believe in the parks’ mission of perpetuity – that these iconic testaments to our heritage will exist for our ancestors to explore and appreciate.

Or, finally, the study’s spotlight on the power of National Park Service programs, comprising nearly one third of our parks’ total economic value, as parks are the catalysts for community building, historic preservation, and lifelong learning.

High school students digging and building trails

Trail work done by high school students at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument

Dawn Kish

Even though it’s challenging, if not impossible, to put a price tag on our national parks, we can and should strive to measure and understand their considerable economic benefits. After all, showing the value and economic impact helps make the case for increased financial support of our parks to members of Congress and philanthropic donors.

The National Park Service measures our parks’ economic benefits through its annual Visitor Spending Effects report. Published each spring, this report lays out how national parks fuel our economy through visitor spending and job creation. The report also examines economic impacts, or economic activity that would likely be lost from a local economy if a national park was not there.

Back of a park ranger holding up a park map with wildlife on it to kids in the audienceo

Wildlife education at Olympic National Park

Dawn Kish

Thanks to the Visitor Spending Effects report, we know that in 2015 alone over 307 million national park visitors spent a striking $16.9 billion in “gateway” communities surrounding national parks. We can also confirm that our national parks are job-creators, supporting more than 295,000 positions in the hospitality, recreation, lodging, tourism, and travel sectors in 2015. These kinds of data reflect the very real difference that national parks make, from the park level to our national economy.

As a complement to the National Park Service’s report, the Total Economic Value study paints a more complete picture of how we value our national parks. By capturing the value beyond our parks’ ability to stimulate spending or create jobs, the study offers a different way to consider what these places mean to our country.

Far from being the last word, there will always be many ways of thinking about the net benefits to society that our national parks provide, some of which are being actively explored. Ironically, the closer we come to a better understanding of the value of our national parks, the more we see how priceless these places truly are.

Photo credits:  Raghuveer Makala, Share the Experience 2008 photo contest, Death Valley National Park.

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