Thank Government For Something: National Parks

Previously on Thank Government For Something, I considered the value of the National Weather Service. Here is another edition in that series…

Earlier this week we watched a DVD about some of America’s National Parks, highlighting the variety and beauty of the protected lands across the United States. I thought this made a great candidate for another T.G.I.F, I mean, T.G.F.S. (Thank Government For Something.)

The National Park system of the United States has an interesting history. In 1832, “Andrew Jackson signed legislation” to partially protect what later became Hot Springs National Park. In 1864, Lincoln signed legislation that gave the future site of Yosemite National Park to the state of California. Yellowstone was the first true National Park created in 1872, partially as a chance consequence of local political structure; unlike California with Yosemite in the previous decade, the land of Yellowstone was not yet part of a state but was still a federal territory, “so the federal government took on direct responsibility for the park.” Yellowstone is apparently considered the first national park in the world, and it inspired many other countries to do the same in the following decades. (What? You mean back in the day the American conservation movement was a trend-setter for Europe? Yep. But the difference between conservationism and environmentalism is a whole ‘nother topic.) Today the United States has 58 national parks covering mountains, deserts, forests, lakes, and other varieties of gorgeous natural phenomena.

Now if you’re a good little libertarian – or even just a good little ideological Tea Party Republican – you might believe that everything the federal government does is inefficient, incompetent, and a drag on the private economy. And we could begin an argument in that direction. When government protects land, there is an opportunity cost regarding whatever private development could have happened. In a pure libertarian fantasy, I presume National Parks wouldn’t exist, and private individuals would own these lands and cut the trees for wood or mine the mountains for raw materials or whatever else they wanted. But only thinking about the lost economic value of protecting these lands ignores the intrinsic value that citizens place on these lands. I think it’s clear that the National Parks are highly valued simply by the large numbers of people that come to visit them (hundreds of millions per year), and it could be argued that our society has decided we value the joy of preserving and visiting these lands more than the economic value of developing these lands.

There are definitely trade-offs between the two values, but I think our National Park system sits in a fair place between the extremes. In the DVD they said that 90% of the giant Redwood forest was destroyed to support the advancing civilization, and a conservationist movement led to the protection of what was left. I think I was supposed to feel bad about all the Redwoods that were gone, but I couldn’t help thinking that as a whole we ended up with a pretty good deal. If the government had protected the entire forest, a lot of economic progress would have been lost due to the increased difficulty of building homes and businesses for the people of the time. But if the whole forest had been eliminated, no one could choose to visit it and enjoy its natural beauty today.

Additionally, the “beauty” value isn’t the only thing we get from National Parks. People value the joy of viewing these natural wonders so much that they pay to drive or fly to them, stay in hotels near them, and otherwise act as tourists while they support the local economies. Even large numbers of foreign visitors come to the United States every year and spend money around our National Parks. Anyone who believes that the federal government always gets in the way of economic progress should consider the bustling tourism business that springs up around all of these federally protected lands. The United States is big enough that we can “exploit” most of the land and still have plenty of room to mark off some of the most beautiful parts for people to visit and enjoy – and spend money on businesses while they’re there. Learning about these National Parks actually inspires me to work harder so I can afford to visit as many of them as possible.

So not only is there non-economic value to preserving the Redwood forest, but there’s raw economic value as well! It’s even possible that the ongoing tourism business created by the forest leads to greater economic progress than we would have received by cutting the rest of the forest down a hundred years ago to build a few more houses. (Of course, it’s also possible that it’s not greater, but it’s definitely not a slam-dunk for the government-always-impedes-progress crowd.)

This does not mean that the system is ideal. I have no idea whether or not the National Park Service deserves its $3 billion budget (but I doubt it), or whether the amount of land in our national parks achieves the perfect trade-off of private economic development vs. public protection for all to enjoy. It’s possible that the federal government could auction off a decent amount of the land for private ownership and still preserve a large amount of valuable land. Additionally, a strict constitutionalist might argue that there are thousands of state parks and we don’t need national ones as well. It’s That may be a principle worth arguing in our deficit-ridden era, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to argue that the effects of the National Parks have been bad for the country as a whole.

But even if the National Park system is not ideal, I believe its value to us as citizens is still positive. I thank the government that I have the ability to freely enter the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and hike some of its hundreds of miles of trails. Meanwhile, I can still give my capitalist business to the hotels and restaurants of my choosing, along with whatever other museums or other places we decide to visit along the way and during our stay. So thank you, government, for parks!

6 thoughts on “Thank Government For Something: National Parks”

  1. I think the libertarian counter-argument would be that, since there is a clear economic benefit to having the parks, we can expect private investors to conserve a fair amount of parkland in order to make money from environmental tourism. Even when there’s no money to be made directly, private groups and individuals still donate time and money to creating and caring for parkland. Consider Central Park in New York City, or what Douglas Tompkins did in Chile. Indeed, if the federal government were to announce tomorrow that it was privatizing all the National Parks, I would be very surprised if there wasn’t a concerted effort from environmentalist groups to purchase the newly-private land and conserve it themselves.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I do think thats a pretty good counter argument. I almost mentioned in the post that the Libertarian Party website suggests that the Audubon Society might do a better job preserving these lands than the government. I guess my main point is that the federal status quo is not that bad and actually I think quite positive. However the existence of the libertarian argument means I also wouldnt be extremely concerned if the government sold them off to cut costs. Yet I would be partially concerned because the parks are essentially a public good where a very large number of people can enjoy them non-rivalrously. While as you say there is a good chance that private organizations would claim the parks and preserve their public goodness, perhaps more efficiently, there is also the chance that private businesses would claim the parks and use the land for their own gain. The capitalist in me doesnt think theres anything wrong with this, but the citizen in me thinks there would be a net loss to society if that were to happen.

  2. “Part 1”

    I’m a bit late to this conversation (I can’t believe it, I didn’t catch this one!), but as a former (and perhaps again future) employee of the National Park Service, and as a person who considers himself closest politically to the Libertarian/Classical Liberal ideal, I’m very glad to read this article and wholeheartedly agree with the overall sentiment of it. The National Park Service is a wonderful service and they were a great employer for me during my time at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic site.

    When looking at the ramifications of the creation of the NPS and whether or not it’s a worthwhile endeavor for the federal government I think you need to look at several factors:

    1. Does it cut the “economic value” of that land, as you ask in your article?
    2. What are the economic ramifications of the federal government running the National Park Service?
    3. Is there a role for the federal government in preserving American History?

    1. Yes, these lands could have their economic value cut by their removal from the free market, but as you mention, there is an intrinsic and tangible quality about these lands that attract people from all over the world to visit them – one that ostensibly overrides the possible economic benefits of the land being placed in private hands. For example, a recent controversy brewed at Gettysburg recently after Wal-Mart tried building a store very close to battlefield, and the people of Gettysburg overwhelmingly opposed Wal-Mart’s attempts to grab the land. Thus, a libertarian argument could be made that if the local people within the area of a National Park site oppose the privatization of that land, it should stay that way.

    People of all types love going to National Parks and heartily support them. I met several self-professed libertarians that told me they loved the NPS; while I hate playing the “if so-and-so were alive today what would they think about this…” game, but one of these libertarians argued to me that he thought Jefferson would have heartily supported the NPS if he were alive today, and I think that could be a fair guess, based on his love for education and nature.

    When looked at the big picture, the amount of land the NPS owns is a spec of the total land in the U.S., so I don’t think there’s enough of an argument there to be made that the possession of lands by the NPS could seriously diminish the economic benefits of privatization, whether on a federal or state level.

    One more example: recently, within the past two years, several members of the Busch family in St. Louis have expressed an interest in either donating or selling the land on “Grant’s Farm” property – which is about 270 acres – to the NPS for a number of reasons, most notably that the site is a money pit as is and that InBev has no interest in running the park anymore. Whenever a situation like this occurs, the process of making a piece of property a part of the NPS always starts at the local level. The people within the local community have to support it, convey that support to the local and state politicians who must support the acquisition at the state level, followed by approval of the federal govt. The process of buying new land for the NPS is never a top-down affair; the NPS for years has always tried to argue that they have too much property as it is, which has subsequently led to the federal govt. refraining from purchasing new land unless it is originally supported by the local population, followed the national population via Congress. So far, the local community (Affton, Kirkwood, Grantwood Village, Webster Groves, etc.) has overwhelmingly supported the idea of the land being given to the federal government, and the state government has also passed a motion supporting the idea. I had many visitors tell me that the idea of privatizing the Grant’s Farm land was revolting to them, and that they considered Grant’s Farm a cultural icon of St. Louis.

  3. “Part 2”

    2. As you state, the National Park Service receives roughly $3 Billion a year to run its parks. While some will doubt whether the NPS should be getting this much money, several factors need to be looked at. Firstly, the NPS receives less than one percent of the federal budget for its expenditures, so an argument can be made that its not very taxing on the American taxpayer. Secondly, most NPS Park Rangers that you would meet at a National Historic Site are not making very much money. Different parks pay different wages, but many park rangers are only making between $25,000 and $40,000 a year. Add to the fact that most full time rangers have their masters’ degrees (which can be expensive) and that some parks do not offer full benefits such as health, dental, etc. to their full-time staff, much less their part-time staff, and one can begin to see that the NPS is not some money-grubbing organization. Sure, upper management makes more, and money does get wasted in the system, I think the federal government has plenty of “bigger fishes” to fry when it comes to the federal budget than the NPS.

    3. I’m starting to lose steam here, so I’ll keep it short, but I think there is plenty of justification for some sort of involvement of the federal govt. to preserve its history. National historical figures, events, and lands are all aspects of history that are shared by all Americans. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Ulysses S. Grant were all Presidents for the entire nation – do their homes not merit protection from the National Govt. for their national contributions to the historical memory of all Americans. What about an important event, such as a Revolutionary or Civil War era battle site – did not Americans from all over the country die in these battles? Certainly all Americans have a share of the history at Lexington, Gettysburg, and Fort Sumter.

    I’m a fan of the NPS and hope to visit more sites in the future, in addition to possibly continuing my career with the Park Service.

    1. Thanks for another insightful comment, Nick. One thing that I see a marginal argument for is whether or not the government has too much land (because obviously there would be a tipping point somewhere), so its very interesting to hear that the government already thinks it has enough land and relies on local private interests when it comes to getting more.

  4. That’s exactly what I thought when I worked with the NPS and I asked about the process of buying new lands and creating new parks. It’s interesting because in this case the Federal Govt. – more specifically the Dept. of the Interior – realizes that it’s strapped for cash and only expands when the local private interests of the various states overwhelmingly call for the expansion of the park service.

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