Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Go Outside

acadia

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

Why We Should All Go to National Parks

• March 12, 2014 • 12:00 PM

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

As their centennial approaches, it’s time to remember why the National Parks are so worth protecting.

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.

Casey N. Cep
Casey N. Cep is a writer from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She has written for the New Republic, the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the Paris Review. Follow her on Twitter @cncep.

More From Casey N. Cep

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 20 • 10:28 AM

Flare-Ups

Are my emotions making me ill?


December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.