If We Fail the National Parks, We Fail the Nation

Denali National Park (©Marc Cappelletti)

Denali National Park (©Marc Cappelletti)

US National Parks received 330 million visitors in 2017. From Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve to Acadia National Park in Maine, people chose to spend their time in natural American beauty. In doing so, they not only fed their souls, they contributed to American enterprise in a way that few if any other entities do (and which I’ll explain below). The President, the Secretary of the Interior and his department have the responsibility and privilege of managing that unique resource. According to the National Parks System Advisory Board, they haven’t.

This week, 9 of the 12 board members resigned, citing the Secretary’s failure to have a single meeting with them in the past year, the dismissal of emails, phone calls, the failure to appoint a Director of the National Park Service among other issues. I’m left scratching my head at all of it.

But this story isn’t about the National Parks.

John Muir taught us over a century ago that “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” As such, no one beams into Yosemite and beams out. Hotels, restaurants, tour operators and vendors, guiding services, grocery and souvenir stores, travel agencies, even gas stations are all affected by visitors — whether they are heeding the call of the wild, or simply want a place to picnic.


According to the independent, non-partisan research firm, Headwaters Economics, 2016 National Park visitor spending topped $18 billion in local gateway regions. This spending supported 27,000 National Park Service jobs and an estimated 269,201 jobs in secondary industries, many of which are in remote parts of the country where other employment is limited. Total economic output of National Parks visits was measured to eclipse $34 billion in 2016.

Is investing in the Parks and Park Service a sound idea? A 2011 Michigan State University report found that for each $1 invested in the NPS, the American public receives $4 in economic value. A 400% return.

Furthermore, according to the National Park Service, over 130,000 people contributed over 5 million VOLUNTEER hours to the overall preservation and management of our National Parks. This equates to $91 million in free labor*, and an immeasurable amount of respect, duty and love of country, all for our fellow Americans (and international tourists)!

So let’s marinate on all this for a second:

We have a $18 billion+/year entity (and growing!) that impacts a secondary market, receives over 300 million visitors a year, sustains over 27,000 direct jobs, supports over 250,000 secondary jobs, with over 130,000 more people choosing to volunteer for its benefit…and we’re not going to at least meet with the advisory board? We don’t have the time to appoint a new director?

Here’s where the journey to understanding gets face-palm-frustrating:

From NPR:

“In a statement Wednesday, Department of Interior spokesperson Heather Swift said the department welcomes the resignations. She called the board members’ claim of neglect “patently false,” saying the department had been working with the board as recently as earlier this month.
“The appointment of two of the individuals who claim to be resigning had already expired in July and November, and they did not seek reappointment,” Swift added in her statement. “Their hollow and dishonest political stunt should be a clear indicator of the intention of this group.”
“The terms of most of the members who quit were set to expire in May. Radelet’s term would not have expired until 2021.”

Does that qualify this as a stunt, assuming the board is truthful in their claims of negligence? Or do I believe the Department of the Interior spokesperson and dismiss it as all made up?

From the same NPR piece:

E&E News points to another area of contention between the Department of the Interior and the NPS advisory board:
“At the heart of the dispute is the Trump administration’s move in August to scrap a 2016 order by the Obama administration that called for a focus on climate change in managing natural resources in U.S. parks. …
“Among other things, the order called for park managers to make decisions based ‘on science, law and long-term public interest.’ And it said park superintendents and other NPS leaders had to ‘possess scientific literacy appropriate to their positions and resource management decision-making responsibilities.’
“Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Democrat who is the ranking member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, issued a statement of support for the resigning board members.
“The President still hasn’t nominated a director for the National Park Service and Secretary Zinke has proposed tripling entrance fees at our most popular national parks,” she said. “His disregard of the advisory board is just another example of why he has earned an ‘F’ in stewardship.”

An experienced guide would pause our hike here and show us the serpent eating its own tail.

Having worked in tourism for over a decade, I’ve benefitted immeasurably from the wonder of our national parks and the passion of countless National Park Service employees. I was once at a travel conference were a high-ranking politician said that while he had lobbyists and representatives from energy and natural resources entities in his office all the time, he heard much less from constituents speaking up for tourism and our National Parks — even though the economic and cultural (I’ll even say spiritual) benefits are undeniable.

So, my ask: forget any he said/she said, if you care about National Parks and want to help this administration see the benefit of their stewardship, let your voice be heard. Shout it from a mountain top, better yet, type it in an email to your representatives or share it in a phone call. Then visit a National Park.

The numbers show, if we fail the national parks, we fail the nation.

*Based on the private sector value figure of $17.55/hr. as used by AARP, Points of Light Foundation, and other large-scale volunteer programs including many federal agencies.