The National Park System (NPS) has had a pretty thrilling 365 days. Last spring and summer, they were everyone’s darling, with NPS 100 celebrations around the nation — culminating with free entry at all parks on August 25th. In the fall, they benefitted from Barack Obama’s flurry of late-term conservation moves. First, he expanded the already-gigantic Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (making it the largest of its kind anywhere), then he finished his term by creating the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah and the Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada.
The message of Obama’s administration was clear: Public spaces, managed by the NPS, are vital to the broader conservation efforts of our nation. Or as he said himself in June, while spending Father’s Day with his family at Yosemite:
“We have to have the foresight and the faith in the future to protect our parks and to protect our planet for the generations to come.”
But with regime change came a new agenda, one which the parks system would naturally feel threatened by. President Donald Trump has called climate change a hoax and had all mention of it scrubbed from the White House website, while the GOP hopes to put federal property in the hands of states (which could then potentially issue fracking or mining leases). It should be no surprise that an agency whose mission is conservation and preservation of natural resources bristled a little.
The Seeds Of A Feud
For those just following the headlines this week, it might seem like the opening salvo of the Trump Twitter Trollfest came when the NPS account retweeted images comparing the size of the 2008 and 2016 inaugurations. But while no one could deny the message being sent by that tweet, the president had actually set a plan in action earlier that same day which could ultimately lead to massive NPS closures around the country.
How? With an Inauguration Day hiring freeze for all non-defense related government jobs — a move which is about to smack into our National Parks like a freight train.
As Motherboard notes, the National Parks System currently has 438 full-time job listings open. More to the point, the system relies on seasonal workers to help manage the huge influx of summer visitors. If those hires aren’t made (and this is the time to make them), hours will be reduced, visitors will be limited, and parks may temporarily close. Sound hyperbolic? It’s probably not. Not when the man who will decide on any exemptions to the hiring moratorium, Mick Mulvaney, hasn’t even been confirmed by the senate yet.
During the 16-day government shutdown of 2013, the NPS lost $414 million in spending. No wonder they seem edgy.
So you have congress already laying the groundwork to sell off federal lands, a president who doesn’t believe in global warming (while the NPS takes the subject very seriously), and a hiring freeze that may prevent the parks from bringing on vital staff on a timely basis. Suddenly the president’s favorite medium was starting to look like the last available means of resistance.
This was the backdrop for an epic tweet storm. First came the NPS, then the Badlands, the meteoric rise of @AltUSNationalParkService (which is quite clearly run by NPS insiders), and finally a series of sly tweets from Death Valley, referencing WWII internment camps on the afternoon the president took action on his promises to limit the movements of Muslims in the U.S..
The revolution would not be televised, it would be tweeted.
Calculating The Real Value Of Our National Parks
Though President Trump’s ideas about climate change are in direct opposition to the views held by NPS, there’s no real excuse for him not to support the parks. In fact, he should absolutely love them. He is, above all things, a businessman and supporting the National Park Service is a smart business move. Yes, they receive funding from the Federal Government, but that’s because their only reportable cash flow comes from revenues — which is straightforward accounting but hardly gives them their proper due.
The National Parks System controls and manages some 85 million acres. If they were able to charge the government a service fee (like literally all of our other asset managers do) the financial outlook would be significantly different. Basically, the NPS is like a bank — one which takes care of our money for free and only brings in cash when they charge for tours of the vaults.
There are wide-ranging ancillary benefits to supporting NPS too. You know how they call a supermarket the “anchor store” of a mini-mall, because all the other businesses thrive thanks to its draw? The National Park system is like the anchor store for an entire nation’s non-urban-based tourism. The food, beverage, consumer goods, and hotel industries built around parks like Zion and the Everglades is — to use a word the president loves — huge.
As President Obama reminded crowds on a variety of occasions, the ROI for $1 given to National Parks translates to $10 pumped back into the economy. His comments are based off data from a 2014 study on spending effects in communities adjacent to National Parks, which found:
In 2015, the National Park System received over 307.2 million recreation visits. NPS visitors spent $16.9 billion in local gateway regions (defined as communities within 60 miles of a park). The contribution of this spending to the national economy was 295 thousand jobs, $11.1 billion in labor income, $18.4 billion in value added, and $32.0 billion in economic output. The lodging sector saw the highest direct contributions with $5.2 billion in economic output directly contributed to local gateway economies nationally. The sector with the next greatest direct contributions was the restaurants and bars sector, with $3.4 billion in economic output directly contributed to local gateway economies nationally.
That’s a lot of money when you consider that the 2017 total discretionary budget requested by the parks is only $3.1 billion. And it doesn’t even take into account the multi-billion dollar action sports, backpacking, camping, and trendy-flaxseed-based energy bar industries.
During this new era of fiscal conservatism $3.1 billion might raise eyebrows, but consider this: The Outdoor Industry Association estimates consumer spending on outdoor recreation at $646 billion per year. That puts the federal tax revenue for this sector at around $40 billion. Ask literally anyone in the outdoor retail industry and they’ll tell you that our National Parks are the tentpole holding their businesses up.
And these numbers still don’t include the value of the NPS’s scientific contributions or the Co2 capturing capabilities of our protected spaces. Basically, if there were a macroeconomic version of The Apprentice, anyone who didn’t invest heavily in our National Parks Service would be immediately and dramatically fired. Even if the boss was a vocal opponent of science.
If America Comes First, So Must Our Parks
It’s also interesting to wonder if Trump realizes that these are all American jobs on American soil. Unlike so many other huge entities, the president won’t have to make concessions to get the national parks to stay in the U.S. He just needs to work with them, to let them hire a staff, and to properly fund them.
That happens to be exactly what Ryan Zinke, the president’s nominee for interior secretary, wants to do. He said that Trump’s administration should, “prioritize the estimated $12.5 billion in backlog of maintenance and repair” for the NPS. If he were to bring the president around to his way of thinking, it would be a major win for just about every person in the country.
Time will, of course, tell. The cognitive dissonance connected to climate isn’t going away — with a Science March on Washington coming up and pushback from resistance movements sure to continue. And the fact that Donald Trump, a city dweller, seems to have no real fondness for the outdoors may hurt the NPS. But his love for all things that make financial sense ought to help them considerably.
Teddy Roosevelt, a republican, said once, “There is nothing so American as our national parks…. The fundamental idea behind the parks…is that the country belongs to the people, that it is in process of making for the enrichment of the lives of all of us.”
While writer Wallace Stegner called them “the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”
Hopefully, our new president’s own “best idea” will be to let the parks operate and protect the land they were set up to manage. Maybe he can come to this conclusion while meeting with park officials before announcing an NPS exemption from the hiring freeze. Then, as everyone smiles for the cameras about this smart economic choice, maybe he can listen to their science too.