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Why We Should All Go to National Parks

As their centennial approaches, it's time to remember why the National Parks are so worth protecting.
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Acadia National Park. (Photo: Gary Brownell/Flickr)

Acadia National Park. (Photo: Gary Brownell/Flickr)

Easily missed in the White House’s jaw-dropping $3.9 trillion, door-stopping 212-page budget for 2015 was an extra $55.1 million for the National Park Service. That tiny boost in the NPS’s $2.6 billion budget would allow the Park Service to add 200 new staffers, ending a long-term hiring freeze, and to prepare for its centennial in 2016.

While President Ulysses S. Grant established Yellowstone as the first national park in 1872, it was President Woodrow Wilson who created the park service in 1916. Wilson signed the Organic Act into law, establishing the National Park Service “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects 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.”

The National Park Service returns 10 dollars for every dollar of taxpayer investment, not only collecting admission and camping fees, but filling surrounding hotels and restaurants while emptying the shelves of local grocery stores and sporting goods outfitters.

Conservation and enjoyment have always competed with one another. One of the reasons the NPS needs additional staff is to protect the parks from those of us who would enjoy them in our own perverse ways, whether it’s carving and painting graffiti on 150-year-old cactuses in Arizona’s Saguaro National Park or poaching the burls and bunions of 1,000-year-old redwoods in California’s Redwood National and State Parks.

Last year, I was one of the 281 million people who visited our nation’s parks. There are 84.5 million acres to choose from around the country, but I spent most of my time in Maine’s Acadia National Park. I walked Sand Beach and watched the sunset from Cadillac Mountain, went tide-pooling on the Bar Island Sand Bar, wandered the forests of spruce and hemlock and fir and pine, counted cairns along the walking paths, and drove the park loop road a half-dozen times to admire the coastline.

I remember reading a placard near the Visitor Center of Acadia that featured a quotation from naturalist and wilderness advocate John Muir: “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.” That quotation is a powerful statement of why we preserve places like Acadia, of how such spaces renew us aesthetically and spiritually.

But there are also economic reasons to establish such parks. The National Park Service returns 10 dollars for every dollar of taxpayer investment, not only collecting admission and camping fees, but filling surrounding hotels and restaurants while emptying the shelves of local grocery stores and sporting goods outfitters.

The profitability of the NPS was most ironically demonstrated last October during the 16 days of the federal shutdown, when 7.88 million visitors stayed home because the parks were closed. Even that short period cost $414 million in lost revenue: All the entrance passes visitors would have bought, all the hotel rooms and bed and breakfast nooks where they would have stayed, all the meals they would have purchased in communities surrounding the parks, and all the walking sticks and picnic baskets and hiking boots they would have bought for their adventures.

IT TURNS OUT THAT national parks aren’t just appeasements for naturalists, but good investments that return tenfold what money is put into them. It’s no wonder Ken Burns called his beautiful documentary about the parks America’s Best Idea. He borrowed that title from the novelist Wallace Stegner, who, in an essay called “The Best Idea We Ever Had,” wrote that the parks are: “Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”

Stegner’s essay and Burns’ documentary both survey the history of the park service, which began in the West during the late 19th century, when things seemed truly wild and worth preserving. Acadia was the first park east of the Mississippi, designated as such in 1919. President after president added more parks and monuments, and the Great Depression brought vast improvements, as more than three million Americans found work clearing roads and trails, building cabins and shelters, and replanting forests through the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Now there are national parks in all 50 states: 401 sites that include parks and preserves, seashores and rivers, battlefields and historical landmarks. But Stegner and Burns prove how useless it is to speak generically of parks, for their splendor is in their specificity. Even I could not write of the National Park Service without detailing the last park I visited, reveling in the particular beauty of Acadia.

That specificity is why I’m enjoying the new environmental site Greenfriar, which names Edward Abbey, David Brower, Annie Dillard, Henry David Thoreau, Paul Watson, and Jane Goodall as patron saints. Greenfriar is a celebration of the outdoors—not only, but often parks. The website’s posts are so powerful because rather than generically praising the wild, they are detailed portraits of specific wild places: from California’s Point Reyes National Seashore to New York’s Sam’s Point Preserve.

The National Park Service will spend millions readying their protected areas for the centennial in 2016, but, like Greenfriar, we might all spend at least a few minutes remembering why these areas are worthy of protection. Remember the first national park you ever visited, or the last national monument you toured; return to the photographs of your family at the edge of the Grand Canyon, the bison by the side of the road at Yosemite, the blurred scenery of the Blue Ridge Parkway from the car window, the Manhattan skyline from Liberty Island when you visited the Statue of Liberty.

Let’s lobby Congress to fund the National Park Service adequately, to meet the president’s budget proposal for 2015, but let’s also all enjoy where the wild things are. Don’t just conserve these monuments and parks; go and enjoy them, too.