Menus Subscribe Search

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

September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


September 17 • 10:00 AM

Pulling Punches: Why Sports Leagues Treat Most Offenders With Leniency

There’s a psychological explanation for the weak punishment given to Ray Rice before a video surfaced that made a re-evaluation unavoidable.


September 17 • 9:44 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: Portlandia Is Dying

Build an emerald city. Attract the best and brightest with glorious amenities. They will come and do nothing.



September 17 • 8:00 AM

Why Don’t We Have Pay Toilets in America?

Forty years ago, thanks to an organization founded by four high school friends, human rights beat out the free market—and now we can all pee for free.


September 17 • 6:32 AM

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists’ appetites.


September 17 • 6:00 AM

The Grateful Dig: An Archaeologist Excavates a Tie-Dyed Modern Stereotype

What California’s senior state archaeologist discovered in the ruins of a hippie commune.


September 17 • 4:00 AM

The Strong Symbolic Power of Emptying Pockets

Researchers find the symbolic act of emptying a receptacle can impact our behavior, and not for the better.


September 16 • 4:00 PM

Why Is LiveJournal Helping Russia Block a Prominent Critic of Vladimir Putin?

The U.S. blogging company is showing an error message to users inside Russia who try to read the blog of Alexei Navalny, a prominent politician and critic of the Russian government.


September 16 • 2:00 PM

Man Up, Ladies! … But Not Too Much

Too often, women are asked to display masculine traits in order to be successful in the workplace.



September 16 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Brilliant 12-Year-Old?

Charles Wang is going to rule the world.


September 16 • 10:09 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance wasn’t a place, but an era of migration. It would have happened even without New York City.


September 16 • 10:00 AM

A Law Professor Walks Into a Creative Writing Workshop

One academic makes the case for learning how to write.



September 16 • 7:23 AM

Does Not Checking Your Buddy’s Facebook Updates Make You a Bad Friend?

An etiquette expert, a social scientist, and an old pal of mine ponder the ever-shifting rules of friendship.



September 16 • 6:12 AM

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn’t have any extra emotional impact.


September 16 • 6:00 AM

What Color Is Your Pygmy Goat?

The fierce battle over genetic purity, writ small. Very small.



September 15 • 4:00 PM

The Average Prisoner Is Visited Only Twice While Incarcerated

And black prisoners receive even fewer visitors.


September 15 • 2:00 PM

Gambling With America’s Health

The public health costs of legal gambling.


September 15 • 12:23 PM

The Scent of a Conservative

We are attracted to the body odor of others with similar political beliefs, according to new research.


Follow us


Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn't have any extra emotional impact.

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you'd be if the government didn't interfere with your life, but that's not what the research shows.

Give Yourself a Present for the Future

Psychologists discover that we underestimate the value of looking back.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

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