Happy Birthday to the National Park Service

Yellowstone in Winter

August 25h marked the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the National Park Service (NPS). Historian Wallace Stegner said national parks are “the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” From Yellowstone to Yosemite, the Grand Canyon to the New River Gorge, our national parks represent one of the great accomplishments in our history.

Just looking at the names of some of our parks, you can see the history, diversity, and grandeur of this collection of national treasures: Gullah/Geechee.  Chickamauga. The Great Smoky Mountains. Shiloh. Devils Tower. Mount Rushmore. Zion. The list goes on and on. Including National Parks, Military Parks and National Monuments, the number is over 400. Virtually every American is near or a short drive away from a national park site. I grew up near the New River Gorge National River and still enjoy visiting that magnificent area.

Most of us have been to a national park, but we do not always think about the impact of parks. Fortunately, there are people who do look at things like that and the news is good. A recent study by Michelle Haefele and John Loomis of Colorado State University and Harvard’s Linda Bilmes looked at the Total Economic Valuation of the National Park Service Lands and Programs. Their findings, combined with other data regarding the economic impact of our parks, are staggering. Haefele, Loomis and Bilmes concluded “Our estimate of the total economic value to the American public is $92 billion. Two-thirds of this total ($62 billion) is for National Park lands, waters and historic sites; the remaining $30 billion is attributed to NPS Programs. The estimate, which is based on very conservative assumptions, includes not only the value attributed by visitors to the parks, but also a significant “non-use” or “existence” value. This is the value derived by the public from simply knowing that NPS assets are protected for current and future generations, regardless of whether or not they actually choose to visit.”

Another way of looking at national parks is their direct economic impact in their locations. The National Park Service 2015 Visitor Spending Effects Report shows the economic impact of national parks and monuments on their surrounding areas and state and national economies. Headwaters Economics has an excellent interactive that makes the data even more searchable. The numbers are remarkable. The world’s first national park – Yellowstone – had over 4 million visits in 2015. Those visitors spent almost half a billion dollars, created 7,735 jobs, and produced $224 million of income for workers. The New River Gorge in 2015 had almost 1.2 million visitors who spent over $50 million, producing more than $20 million in income. With the state of the economy in southern West Virginia, those numbers are important. In total, our parks had more than 307 million visits in 2015. Those visits produced almost $17 billion in spending and over a quarter million jobs. And that was in just one year.

The National Park Service is a large agency. It has a budget of $3.3 billion. That is a lot of money, but it is much less than we spend for many other parts of government (Congress, for example, costs almost $4 billion per year). Given the tremendous economic impact of the national parks, their budget is a bargain.

President Theodore Roosevelt, one of the great supporters of our national parks, said “There can be nothing in the world more beautiful than the Yosemite, the groves of the giant sequoias and redwoods, the Canyon of the Colorado, the Canyon of the Yellowstone, the Three Tetons; and our people should see to it that they are preserved for their children and their children’s children forever, with their majestic beauty all unmarred.”

One last point – in this post I have consistently referred to “our” national parks. That’s because they are. These parks and monuments belong to every American. Rich and poor alike can enjoy them. Entrance fees for the parks that have them are modest. Annual passes are available for $80 that provide admission to every park. Free passes are available for our military and their dependents. $10 annual passes are available for those 62 and older. Free passes are available for people with disabilities.

Congratulations to the National Park Service on your 100th birthday and best wishes for many more centuries.





Is Government Really That Unpopular? The Truth is Complicated….

There was an interesting story on Govexec.com on August 16, 2016 regarding a new Gallup poll that showed that the US government is the least popular of any major industry in the US. The poll listed the restaurant and computer industries as the most popular, with 66% total positive views. The restaurant industry also had the lowest negatives at 7%, with the computer industry slightly higher at 13% negative. The US government came in last on positive ratings – tied with the pharmaceutical industry at 28% positive. The three largest percentages of negative ratings were the government at 55%, pharmaceuticals at 51% and the healthcare industry at 54%.

Those numbers are not a great showing for the US government, but do they really tell the whole story? Of course not. Let’s start with the specious comparison of the United States government to the restaurant, computer or any other industry. Does Burger King withhold money from your paycheck? No. Does Apple? No. No industry in this poll has the kind of power over the everyday lives of Americans that the government exercises. No industry has a responsibility to defend the US, the promote its economy, to pass and enforce laws, or anything else. For the most part, the comparison is meaningless and serves no useful purpose.

Pew Agencies-1
Beyond Distrust: How Americans View Their Government, Pew Research Center, Washington, DC (2015) http://www.people-press.org/2015/11/23/beyond-distrust-how-americans-view-their-government/

The other problem with the poll is that it ignores the fact that the government is a massive entity with many component parts. When we look at those parts we find widely differing views about it. For example, an excellent Pew Research Center study in 2015 showed a high degree of negativity about government, but also areas where government was doing very well. Pew, a respected nonpartisan, nonprofit “Fact Tank,” said “just 19% say they can trust the government always or most of the time, among the lowest levels in the past half-century. Only 20% would describe government programs as being well-run. And elected officials are held in such low regard that 55% of the public says “ordinary Americans” would do a better job of solving national problems.” They also found that 74% said political leaders put their own interests ahead of those of the people.

Those numbers seem to align with the Gallup findings, but Pew dug much deeper and found that the story is far more complex than some click-worthy top line numbers might indicate. Yes – Americans have some very negative views of their government, but they also believe government must play a major role in our society. They want the government to keep us safe from terror, respond to natural disasters, manage immigration, strengthen the economy, and perform many other vital tasks.

In addition to believing the federal government must perform those tasks, they also gave high marks for performance in many of them. More than 70% believe government is doing a good or somewhat good job on responding to natural disasters, ensuring safe food and medicine, and setting workplace standards. High numbers also approved of government’s performance in protecting the environment, ensuring access to quality education, and ensuring basic income for senior citizens.

Pew also asked about specific agencies and found 84% had a favorable view of the Postal Service, the National Park Service had a 75% favorable rating, and the Centers for Disease Control and NASA came in at 71% and 70%, respectively. In fact, agencies representing the vast majority of the government came in at better than 50% approval.

Those numbers and the agencies they represent do not sound like an organization that should be compared to a restaurant or a computer manufacturer or service.

Pew also looked at views of elected officials and found they were not particularly popular. They were viewed as less honest and more selfish than typical americans or business leaders. Congress had a meager 27% favorable rating. The political parties do not fare much better, with the Democrats at 45% and the Republicans at 32%.

The Pew report has much more data and I highly recommend reading it if you want to know a lot more about how government and its many components are viewed. The data is fascinating and tells a complex story.