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How Much Are America’s National Parks Worth?

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According to the National Park Service (NPS), over 300 million visitors collectively spent over a trillion hours at U.S. national parks in 2015. Those numbers are expected to go up this year, given the marketing efforts around the NPS’s centennial anniversary. But even without the anniversary, foot traffic at U.S. parks has been trending upward: In recent years, the NPS has seen record attendance, which has resulted in long lines and packed campsites at some of its most popular parks.

Attendance numbers are often provided as a crude measure of how much people like and value America’s national parks. But that is only a rough proxy for determining the parks’ economic value—a number that could have implications for how the parks are managed and funded.

So a group of researchers recently looked into that question: How much is the NPS—the parks and the services it provides—worth to Americans? “One of the things that the country’s not very good at is how we value public assets, whether those public assets are highways, bridges, or clean air. Here we have this enormous public asset and we didn’t know how to value it,” says Linda Bilmes, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and one of the co-authors of the study.*
Bilmes, along with Michelle Haefele and John Loomis, a postdoctoral fellow and a professor at Colorado State University respectively, estimate that NPS parks and programs are together worth about $92 billion. They arrived at this figure by using methods similar to those that federal agencies use in analyzing proposed regulations. First, they sent a survey to about 4,000 U.S. households asking how much residents were willing to pay in additional federal income taxes in order to keep America’s national parks. An estimate was then made based on the answers of the 700 households that responded, and those who didn’t respond were ascribed a value of zero. The $92 billion number breaks down into $62 billion for National Park lands and $30 billion for NPS programs, which include recreational activities, efforts to protect landmarks, and educational programs. – READ MORE

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