America's National Parks: Money for Nothing, Sunsets for Free

05/19/2015 11:02 am ET | Updated May 19, 2016


Mancos Valley Overlook with areas open for leasing below

Apparently the White House is once again undermining The Constitution and using executive authority without consulting Congress. In February, President Obama designated three new national monuments in Illinois, Colorado and Hawaii and urged Americans to "find their national park" and go there. He even had the gall to declare one of the weeks in April National Park Week.

Of course, national parks or public lands in general are not mentioned in the Constitution. National parks weren't invented until 1872, when Congress, in a rare and rash legislative action, set aside Yellowstone National Park as a perpetual pleasuring ground for Americans then and forever.

Looking back it's something of a miracle that America in the Gilded Age could have done anything so altruistic as establish a national park without thought of economic benefit, if not outright dollars. As one French traveler and observer noted in the middle 1800's, no one ever overheard two Americans in a conversation without the word 'dollar' being used somewhere.

When I became a park ranger in 1972, we were still telling the story of how a U.S. government survey party scouting the Yellowstone in 1871--sat around a campfire near the end of their journey and waxing romantic in the flickering light--hit on the idea that maybe this place should be set aside, taken out of federal land programs devoted to settlement and development and preserved as it was for all time...or at least as long as possible. The story is apocryphal and historians have since written more accurately about the birth and growth of our national parks. And wouldn't you know it, money and dollars were in the conversation from the beginning.

Involved nearly from the beginning were the railroads. A financial juggernaut, they were never known for their bleeding heart sympathies for nature, wildlife, and scenic vistas...unless there was money to be made. And national parks promised to generate a lot of money from people interested in seeing the American West, and willing to pay for it. Railroads would get them there.

Most of the great national parks had their champion. John Muir for Yosemite, Enos Mills for Rocky Mountain, Marjorie Stoneman Douglass for Everglades and many now forgotten Americans pushed to establish parks across the country. But for every one of those altruistic Americans there were others who tried to turn a profit from parks even before they became a park. Kendell Vanhook Bumpass, in 1865 for example, recognized the great potential to make a buck from the bubbling mud pots and boiling springs in today's Lassen Volcanic National Park in northern California. Leading one group of prospective tourists and investors into a particularly active thermal area Bumpass broke through the crust and plunged his leg into a boiling pool of water scalding himself badly. That ended his efforts to make a profit from one of America's geologic wonders, but his name lives on for the thousands of hikers each year who make the easy trek to Bumpass Hell.

The fact that Americans saw profit potential from national parks even from the beginning should be no surprise, given our enterprising and entrepreneurial spirit. It can be argued that the national parks would not have survived at all if they were not financially valuable, a national asset.

In fact, the National Park Service has tracked and analyzed the economic value of America's national parks for years now. The recent 2015 report on 2014 park visitation and economic impacts has just been made available and although it's much like the 2014 report for 2013, the economic impacts are stronger. What it shows through the best analytics available, is that America's national parks make a substantial economic contribution to the gateway communities that lie within a 60 mile radius of the park. Through multiplier effects, the economic benefits ripple through regions eventually making significant contributions to the nation's overall gross national product (GNP). Wealth is generated from people spending money in and near our national parks. People coming from across the country and from all over the world. People demanding food, shelter, rubber tomahawks, T-Shirts and coffee mugs. People spending money and creating jobs, stimulating manufacture of all those souvenirs, driving eco and not so eco-tourism industries, and all the while providing the added bonus of learning something about our planet and ourselves, and seeing something truly inspiring.

According to the National Park Service, upwards of 277,000 direct jobs are created from people visiting national parks. Visitors spend about $15.7 billion though activities such as; eating in restaurants, staying in motels, camping, buying gas, paying sales taxes, demanding stylish hooded sweatshirts. And all of that spending ripples through the American economy creating wealth from magnificent landscapes, inspiring and somber battlefields and legacy monuments to great individuals who made their mark on the fabric of the American experience. Not too bad for a renewable resource.

Now compare the national parks as a resource against other more traditional resources like oil, and natural gas. Those resources produce wealth too, but the communities that depend on them will know much greater swings. Every oil town has seen at least one boom and bust cycle, and usually more than one. Tourism around national parks can experience ups and downs as well, but hardly the same extreme as the oil field. And tourism dollars are buffered against recession by foreign visitation. Unless it's an ill wind indeed some part of the globe is growing in wealth, and many of the citizens from those countries will spend significant money to see America.

I bring all this up because recently the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Colorado issued plans for oil and gas leasing on lands it manages. Colorado BLM land borders Dinosaur National Monument, Mesa Verde National Park, and Chaco Culture National Historical Park. These parks generate significant wealth for their communities and those earnings ripple through the economy making America a wealthier country.

Park Rangers for Our Lands has been asking the National Park Service and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to work together to better develop the kind of landscape planning along the borders of these parks where oil and gas development could damage the very value that makes these parks so special. We have been arguing that there is room for both oil and gas leasing on BLM lands, when it is done through planning, that recognizes the value and sensitive resource issues near the boundaries of national parks. That doesn't seem a stretch to us. Near Dinosaur National Monument the Bureau of Land Management has done a reasonably good job of developing a plan that promises to protect recreation opportunities, clean air, wildlife habitat, and scenic vistas important to the park, while allowing oil and gas development where it would not impact the park.

That is not the case at Mesa Verde where Colorado BLM had adopted a plan that would allow oil and gas leasing in areas adjacent to Mesa Verde that would degrade air quality, cloud the night sky, squeeze wildlife habitat and weaken recreational values of this park.

This is unnecessary and there is room for both parks and oil and gas, and it appears that Colorado BLM might be coming around. Local field staff announced that they would take a "fresh look" by pursuing a master leasing plan that could strike a better balance between energy development and the future of the park.

Eventually we will run out of fossil fuel and we'll be operating on solar, wind, wave, and maybe fusion power. Who knows? But there will be an end to oil and gas...and coal. But it isn't the same for our nation's national parks, unless we fail to plan wisely.

As we used to say about Stephen Mather, the first Director of the National Park Service, there will never be an end to the good he has done. There should never be an end to the national parks either and there doesn't have to be. Planning on a landscape level that considers all of the values in play can provide for the extraction of important oil and gas resources and protect the values and continue to keep our national parks the valuable and inspiring landscapes that they are.

Throughout my career as a park ranger we would joke that we got paid less with money and more in sunsets, and in our national parks the sunsets can be priceless.