Revisiting America’s Best Idea: National Parks as Policy

Photo Courtesy: National Park Service

By John O. Sullivan

With the conclusion of our election coverage the Finest Bagels Blog will now be resuming our “Revisiting America’s Best Idea” series.  To read the introductory post, click here. To read the first post of the series, click here.

“These areas, though distinct in character, are united through their inter-related purposes and resources into one national park system as cumulative expressions of a single national heritage; that, individually and collectively, these areas derive increased national dignity and recognition of their superb environmental quality through their inclusion jointly with each other in one national park system preserved and managed for the benefit and inspiration of all the people of the United States” –National Park Service General Authorities Act, 1970

Tom gave us all a lovely overview and history of the National Park System. Romance aside, remember one thing, the National Parks System was formed by law and is overseen by a government agency. That makes it a policy, and policy is subject to and deserving of cold, cruel, objective analysis. And while I too, am a lover of the parks, when it is the people’s money being spent, it is best to be sure it is being spent wisely and for the benefit of all, and not merely for the benefit of a few overzealous hikers and granola-crunching tree huggers. So let’s take a look at the beloved National Parks System.

Generally a policy can be evaluated with a number of criteria, which are all useful but which can also have varying levels of applicability to varying policy situations. These measures are:

  • Effectiveness, or the likelihood of the policy to achieve its stated goals, or, in this case, the measurable proof that the policy achieved its original goals.
  • Efficiency, the achievement of policy goals and value of policy benefits measured against its cost.
  • Equity, or the fairness and/or equitability and/or justness in distribution of costs and benefits of a stated policy (this can get a little dicey. For instance, one might argue that a tax hike on the rich to increase funding for inner city schools is inequitable, while another might argue that it is just).
  • Liberty/Freedom, which is, simply, the impact of a policy on the restriction or extension on individual freedoms, rights, and choices (again, one that can get muddled and is largely subject to the evaluator’s political views).
  • Political Feasibility, the likelihood of a policy passing congress and becoming law OR in this case, its continued support from elected officials to receive budgetary priority.
  • Social Acceptability, or the depth and breadth to which the public will accept and support the policy.
  • Administrative feasibility, which is the ability of a department or agency to implement the policy effectively. And finally,
  • Technical Feasibility, which is the availability of technology required to properly implement the policy.


Effectiveness, with regards to policy, is the measure of how well a policy achieves its stated goals. The National Park Service Organic Act (or “Organic Act” for short) established a clear expectation for the new parks system.

“The service thus established shall promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments, and reservations … the fundamental purpose of the said parks and reservations, which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic object and the wildlife therein and 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.”

Which leaves only this, has the National Park Service met those goals?

The number of recreational visitors at Yellowstone National Park was first recorded in 1904, over a decade before the existence of the National Park Service. That year, 13,727 people visited the park for the enjoyment of its natural beauty. By 1916, the year the National Park Service was founded, that number had managed to climb to nearly 36 thousand visitors. A decade after the NPS assumed control of the park, that number had skyrocketed to more than 187,000. In 2015, almost 100 years after the founding of the National Park Service (this year’s numbers aren’t available yet, sorry.), over 4 million people visited Yellowstone National Park. The entire NPS system had 305 million visitors that same year, in other words, conceivably almost every single American could have visited a National Park last year. Of course, international tourists and people who visit multiple parks in the same year drive that number up, but the point stands that an incredible number of people visit a place managed by the National Park System every single year. Promote and regulate the parks? Mission accomplished. The issue of the Park System’s protection of the environment is of course, without question. As Tom covered, before the existence of the Park Service, the existing National Parks were frequent victim of poaching, deforestation, and general development. The National Park Service has protected these lands for a full century, and they look to be around for many more years, so I feel comfortable calling that a success as well. The only question left regarding the efficacy of the National Park Service is their ability to preserve the parks unimpaired for future generations while still maintaining the existence of the Parks System as we know it, but that is a very complex issue for another article entirely.

Effectiveness? Check.


The National Park Service receives some $3 Billion from Congress on a yearly basis. Entrance fees concessions, memorabilia, and philanthropy bring in some additional funds, however there are many indications that this does not make up a significant portion of the NPS’s yearly income. However, data from Headwaters Economics suggests that in addition to their own 22,000 employees, the National Park System generated over a quarter million jobs through positive economic impacts in the communities that house the parks, or about 1 job generated per $11k of government spending. For comparison, the Work Progress/Projects Administration (WPA) of FRD’s New Deal, put nearly 3 million people to work, spending $11 Billion in its first six years. 3 million people to work at $611 per person may make the NPS at a quarter million jobs for $3 Billion sound weak, but adjusted for inflation, the WPA was creating jobs at a rate of 1 per $10,782.70, which means that the National Parks Service is roughly as efficient in job creation as one of the hallmark programs of the New Deal. That’s already a fairly effective economic boost, when one considers that all those employed by or because of the NPS are now taxpayers rather than drawing on government services like unemployment and food stamps, the pot gets even sweeter.

I lead with job creation specifically because it is tangible and measurable. But job creation is not the only value to the National Parks. Along with the job creation, for $3 Billion a year, the nation and the world are beneficiaries of the conservation impacts produced by protecting large amounts of land and water. Additionally, these protected lands and waters become scientific playgrounds, undisturbed wilderness which may help us gleam insights into the way the natural world works, and preserved historical sites which allow archaeologists to learn more about our own national past. Finally, there is a certain intangible benefit to the national spirit that only the parks can bring. It was Stephen T. Mather, the first Director of the National Park Service who said this: 

“Who will gainsay [deny] that the parks contain the highest potentialities of national pride, national contentment, and national health? A visit inspires love of country; begets contentment; engenders pride of possession; contains the antidote for national restlessness…. He is a better citizen with a keener appreciation of the privilege of living here who has toured the national parks.” 

The public is well served by the ability to visit these public lands and waters, in addition to the multitude of other benefits, tangible and intangible, that the National Parks System creates. Not to be too cheesy, but many of these benefits, from conservation to scientific research, to national pride and recreation, are truly priceless.


It is hard to say that the National Parks are anything but equitable. They are one of the last truly democratic institutions in our country. The beauty of protected and preserved nature, for all to enjoy equally and to their heart’s content, is a large part of what makes the National Parks System so magical. Preservation of biological diversity and sound ecosystems are also crucial to securing humanity’s long term sustainable future on Earth for all people.

In 2015, only a third of the park units administered by the NPS charged an admission fee, and of those parks, the highest fee was $30 per vehicle. It is important to note that these fees are per VEHICLE, meaning an entire family can enter a park for the same price as a single person, as long as only one vehicle as used. While the largest, most popular parks, have higher fees, and many fees were raised this past year, the fees are still generally low or nonexistent outside of the most visited parks.


This is one of the more interesting, and perhaps unresolvable points of a policy analysis of the National Parks. As stated earlier, one’s views on Liberty/Freedom impacts can vary widely based on ideological stances. In the case of the National Parks, arguments around this point swirl not just around ideology, but also geographic location.

In a highly publicized incident in early 2016, a number of armed ranchers took control of a federal building in Oregon, at Malheur Wildlife Refuge. The fact that this incident could be accurately described as domestic terrorism, and that I myself would have seriously considered ordering the  101st Airborne wake up said ranchers with a stiff boot to the ass in the middle of the night, are both matters for another article.

This takeover was the immediate reaction of a 5-year prison sentence by two local ranchers over a charge of arson on federal lands, but a culture of anti-government and anti-federal land sentiment in the west was undoubtedly a major underlying factor.

Because of a number of historic factors, the Federal government hasn’t divested much of the land it came to own during Western expansion, the result being that the Federal government owns about 47% of all land in the west, compared to a mere 4% in the East. This has led to inevitable conflicts between rural citizens of western states, particularly ranchers, and the federal government, over issues from grazing rights to regulations over the land, in spite of the fact that this report shows that the Federal Government is a reasonable, if not generous, land lord to these ranchers.

The issue of National Park’s impact on Freedom and Liberty is largely unresolvable. While there is an argument to be made that the National Parks and federal land ownership in general are inherently opposed to complete freedom, there is an equally valid argument to be made that people’s liberties are enhanced by having the nation’s natural wonders preserved and having the freedom to visit said wonders, a freedom they may not have if the lands were privately, rather than publicly, owned.

Political Feasibility

While the original passage of the guiding legislation for the National Park Service is long past, the NPS faces the same challenge any other government agency faces in securing yearly funding from Congress. And, somewhat confusingly, many right-wing conservative Republicans have found themselves opponents of the National Parks system. Though it stands among the greatest legacies of REPUBLICAN President Teddy Roosevelt, modern pressures have found many Republicans to be opponents of the National Park Service, either in favor of some kind of anarcho-capitalist desire for abolition of the parks altogether, or as a reaction to the way the federal government regulates the land and a desire to see even more unrestricted access.

Any political challenges to the NPS stem from the same dark, unholy place from which the Oregon “protests” sprang. I would term political challenges to the existence of the National Park Service as fringe and extremely unlikely to have an actual impact.

I say this in spite of the fact that in 2014, H.R. 1459, which would have limited the number of national monuments a President could create, passed the House by about 20 votes. While that may sound convincing, the bill was never taken up in the Senate and would have surely been vetoed in the unlikely case that it passed the upper chamber. This bill was almost certainly a political reaction to President Obama’s aggressive land protections (President Obama has protected more land and water than any other president).

So it is with this that I say that the Political Feasibility of the National Parks Service remains tentatively sound. The parks aren’t going anywhere.

Social Acceptability

Refer to Liberty/Freedom. While there is certainly a small but highly vocal minority in opposition to the National Park Service, a 2013 Gallup survey showed that more than two-thirds of Americans approve of the way the federal government handles the national parks and open spaces, and only a quarter disapproved of the federal government’s management of the Parks. As was mentioned earlier, going into its centennial year, the National Park Service was experiencing a record number of visits. Stastitical analysis blog Five Thirty Eight notes that National Park visitorship is up 12% in the last 20 years, despite cratering during the recession. Whether you attribute this sudden jump (visits are up 18% compared to two years ago), to gas prices, the recovering economy, or unseasonably good weather, it is clear that the National Parks are still well loved in the eyes of everyday Americans.

Administrative Feasibility

In early 2016, a report was released which revealed what appeared to be a long-standing issue of drinking and sexual harassment on river tours at Grand Canyon National Park. After weeks of public and Congressional pressure, Jonathan Jarvis, Director of the National Park Service, expanded the inquiry to all parks and facilities under the NPS purview. This investigation revealed a litany of sexual harassment complaints which had been ignored or covered up, and allegations of years worth of mismanagement of these complaints. Unfortunately, in many ways, this scandal is representative of a failure of many American institutions, both public and private, to handle the issue of sexual misconduct and gender equality. However, it is still important to note that in spite of this problem, the NPS has admitted their fault and complicity through inaction, and is taking steps to improve the situation.

Administratively, this scandal is not a signal that the Department of the Interior or the National Park Service are incapable of managing the parks. While the parks face many challenges, I think the fact that the Service has managed to operate continuously for 100 years demonstrates the fact that the Department of the Interior knows how to manage the interior.

Technical Feasibility

The biggest technical challenges to the parks lie in the struggle of maintaining a balance between accessibility of the parks and preserving their purity for future generations. With record attendance numbers last year, and indications of setting a new record this year, a huge strain is being put on the parks. Both the earlier mentioned maintenance backlog for the park system (12 BILLION DOLLARS!?), and a growing problem of park congestion and waits are just symptoms of an inevitable conflict between making the parks available for all and preserving them for future generations.


The National Park Service is an overwhelmingly successful program. Besides the intangible and immeasurable benefits of conservation, access to nature, and the monumentalization of our nation’s greatest natural wonders, the National Parks are incredibly effective at generating jobs and relatively efficient with their money. They are inherently democratic, affordable and accessible to all, and wildly popular. It’s a great program, with a strong legacy deeply entrenched in American History and culture. However, its path forward is clouded. Increased visitorship and a growing maintenance backlog raise the question of where the National Park Service can find the balance between preservation and accessibility.

Click here for the next post in the series.

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