Why Are National Parks Important? Environmental, Social, and Economic Benefits

View of Yosemite's granite walls from the valley floor
Yosemite National Park visitors spend more than $450 million in local gateway communities every year.

tiffanynguyen / Getty Images

Since the National Park Service was established in 1916, its impact on American culture, the U.S. economy, and biodiversity has been significant. National parks, it turns out, have as much power to transform a sleepy community into a bustling tourist attraction as they do to pull an endangered species out of near extinction. The NPS currently manages 84 million acres of public lands—in the form of monuments, memorials, parks, preserves, historical sites, recreation areas, and more—across all 50 states and some offshore territories.

Here's a glimpse at the many economic, environmental, and social benefits they provide.

Economic Benefits

For every dollar taxpayers invest in the NPS, approximately $10 is returned to the U.S. economy. A 2019 Visitor Spending Effects Report revealed that U.S. parks generated $41.7 billion for the national economy, $800 million up from the year before. Together, they contribute seven times more than Disneyland and only about $10 billion less than the total annual economic impact of the Las Vegas tourism industry. What's more, half of that $41.7 billion was spent not in the parks themselves but in local gateway communities within a 60-mile radius.

Visitors collectively spent $7.6 billion on lodging (hotels, motels, bed-and-breakfasts, and campgrounds), $5.3 billion on food (from local restaurants, bars, supermarkets, and convenience stores), $2.16 billion on fuel, $2.05 billion on recreation, $1.93 billion on retail, and $1.68 billion on transportation in 2019. Their dollars directly supported 340,500 jobs and contributed $14.1 billion in labor income, $24.3 billion in value added, and $41.7 billion in economic output.

National Park Visitation Statistics
  2015 2016 2017 2018 2019
Number of visitors 307,247,252 330,971,689 330,882,751 318,211,833 327,516,619
Jobs supported 295,339 318,000 306,000 329,000 340,500 
Total economic output $32.0 billion $34.9 billion $35.8 billion  $40.1 billion $41.7 billion
Source: U.S. Department of the Interior

A Success Story: Los Alamos, New Mexico

View of Los Alamos and the snow-capped Jemez Mountains
The addition of Valles Caldera National Preserve and the Manhattan Project National Historical Park in 2015 put Los Alamos, New Mexico, on the map.

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The NPS's takeover of northern New Mexico's Valles Caldera and Manhattan Project laboratory in 2015 is proof of what national park—and, in this case, national preserve—status can do for small-town economies. Valles Caldera, a 14-mile-wide volcanic depression in the Jemez Mountains, first received federal protection as a trust in 2000. It was meant to be a 15-year experiment "through which the U.S. Congress sought to evaluate the efficiency, economy, and effectiveness of decentralized land management."

At the end of the study in 2015, federal protection of the Valles Caldera had been so successful, both environmentally and financially, that the NPS took it over permanently. At the time, this move alone was expected to generate $11 million in economic activity (plus $8 million in wages, which would support about 200 local jobs). Most of this would benefit the nearby town of Los Alamos, whose primary breadwinner was (and still is) a military laboratory. Coincidentally, the town received another NPS designation that same year, the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.

In 2016, Valles Caldera National Preserve received 50,000 visitors, a 10% increase from the year before and five times more than the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, which brought in a reported $728,000 to local gateway regions. Visitor numbers in Los Alamos jumped from 336,593 to 463,794 that year and have been rising steadily since. While the town has never outlined the direct economic benefits of both these properties, its 2018 Tourism Strategic Plan noted that spending in national park gateway regions throughout New Mexico rose from $81.1 million in 2012 to $108.4 million in 2016—and the only new NPS properties to crop up in that window were Valles Caldera National Preserve and the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.

Today, tourism is a major economic driver for Los Alamos, home to a growing population of about 19,000. The 2018 plan expressed a need for increased lodging supply and enhanced guest experiences, positioning its proximity to three national park properties as "a critical way to promote tourism." 

Environmental Protection

As a federal bureau in the U.S. Department of the Interior, the National Park Service must preserve park resources and values by law. The Organic Act, the very act that established the NPS in 1916, says the agency's purpose is "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein."

In addition to the Organic Act, the NPS is bound by a wealth of laws designed to protect wildlife and the environment. Among them are the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, which preserves select rivers that have historical, geologic, scenic, or cultural value; the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, which directs federal agencies to make decisions that minimize environmental degradation; and the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which ensures NPS activities don't further threaten vulnerable plant and animal species.

In order to carry out these laws, the NPS receives a budget of more than $2 billion per year—part of that goes toward the employment of scientists who study ecosystem restoration, invasive species, wildlife health, and exotic plant management in the parks. U.S. national parks currently provide habitat protection for some 400 threatened or endangered plant and animal species. It also oversees the protection and preservation of more than 76,000 archaeological sites and 27,000 historic and prehistoric structures.

Endangered Species Recovery

Black-footed ferret peaks out of a hole in the ground
The black-footed ferret, once almost extinct, now has a stable population in Wind Cave National Park.

kahj19 / Getty Images

National parks have played an integral role in the recovery of many threatened and endangered species. One example is the black-footed ferret, once called the rarest mammal in the world. These prairie dwellers began to decline due to habitat loss, decline in prey, and plague in the '60s, almost going extinct by the '80s, but the NPS and Fish and Wildlife Service together with other conservation groups began reintroducing the species into Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota, in 2007. Today, about 40 black-footed ferrets live in the park. Every year, some are captured to be vaccinated against deadly diseases and microchipped for research to promote the growth of the population. 

The NPS has facilitated similar species recovery missions all over the country, such as the Kemps-ridley sea turtle on Texas' Padre Island National Seashore, the California condor in Redwood National Park, and Yellowstone's grizzly bears—whose population grew from 136 to 728 between 1975 and 2019.

Protecting Air Quality

In addition to protecting plants and animals, the NPS also has a responsibility to protect the air in parks. The National Park Conservation Association says air pollution is, in fact, among "the most serious threats" to national parks. The Clean Air Act of 1970 requires national parks to abide by the National Ambient Air Quality Standards laid out by the Environmental Protection Agency. This includes minimizing six major pollutants—carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, particulate matter, and sulfur dioxide—that can cause harm to plants and animals or compromise visibility.

National parks combat air pollution by investing in the technology to monitor air quality, working with policymakers to reduce pollution outside national park boundaries, and minimizing energy use within parks (through improving public transportation and, in some cases, switching to solar power).

Social Benefits

A crowd gathers at the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C.
The National Mall provides 300 acres of public green space in the heart of Washington, D.C.

Bjarte Rettedal / Getty Images

The Organic Act of 1916 states that a national park's purpose—in addition to conserving scenery, history, and wildlife—is "to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." The 84 million acres safeguarded by the NPS benefit the American public as much as they benefit the land itself. They also provide access to outdoor recreation where green space is scarce—for instance, the Gateway National Recreation Area in New York City, Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco, and the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Studies have long supported the idea that access to green space can help reduce crime in urban environments. They also show that spending time in nature can improve health and happiness. One recent study by the National University of Singapore found that social media photos tagged #fun, #vacations, and #honeymoons were more likely to feature nature than not to. It also found that nature featured more heavily in #fun-tagged photos taken in countries rated high in the United Nations' 2019 World Happiness Report, such as Costa Rica and Finland.

On a broader scale, national parks can impact community infrastructure. They bring tourism to gateway regions—leading those regions to develop medical centers, provide more access to healthy food, and improve roads and services—and those regions also sometimes receive federal funding for improvements. Take, for instance, the Gardiner Gateway Project, in which the Department of the Interior, the NPS, and local Montana agencies joined forces from 2014 to 2017 to improve pedestrian safety, traffic congestion, parking, lighting, roads, public restrooms, and signage in the small town of Gardiner, located at Yellowstone National Park's North Entrance.

Impact on Indigenous People and Culture

Navajo jewelry shop just outside of Grand Canyon National Park
Today, 11 tribes have historic connections to the land that is now Grand Canyon National Park.

Grant Faint / Getty Images

Indigenous tribes and national parks have had a turbulent history. According to Cultural Survival, an indigenous-led NGO, the creation of national parks has denied indigenous people their rights, "evicted them from their homelands, and provoked long-term conflict." The organization cites the extermination of the Miwok people for the establishment of the country's first national park, Yosemite, and the removal of many tribes from what is now Yellowstone.

In recent decades, however, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and its World Parks Congress have stepped in to help preserve the culture and protect the rights of Indigenous communities that historically relied on these public lands. Cultural Survival notes the importance of the IUCN's Kinshasa Resolution of 1975, which dissuaded governments from displacing Indigenous peoples in protected areas and called on them to instead maintain and encourage traditional ways of living.

Today, while there is still work to be done for national parks to be mutually beneficial to their early inhabitants and the general public, the NPS has taken steps to make amends. Grand Canyon National Park is a good example, as Indigenous communities have started integrating into the tourism industry, acting as guides and artists within the park.

View Article Sources
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