National parks have been deemed "America's best idea," in writer Wallace Stegner's phrasing, and they are celebrated as that in a Ken Burns documentary series airing this week on PBS. Yet, oddly, America's national park system is largely perceived as a fait accompli, like the great Gothic cathedrals in Europe. But national parks should be as much a part of our future as they are of our past.
Americans invented the national park well over a century ago, with Yellowstone, Yosemite and other outstanding natural areas protected as America's "crown jewels." The 1916 act establishing the National Park Service summed up its mission: "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same ... as will leave them unimpaired for future generations."
The nearly 400-park system "units" — including 58 national parks as well as national monuments, preserves, battlefields, recreation areas, historic sites and seashores — cover 84 million acres of land, or about 3.5 percent of America's land mass. Every citizen holds title to them. Their success has inspired nearly 100 other countries to designate 1,200 national parks of their own.
Despite their universal popularity, Congress, the Park Service and park advocates working at the national level focus almost exclusively on existing parks. New park designation has stalled. Since 1980, only 35 new park units of any kind have been created, with the overwhelming majority being small historic sites as opposed to expansive natural areas. Between 1929 and 1980, in contrast, about 230 units were added to the system.
Hostility to federal land ownership and spending on the part of conservative Congresses account for some of the stagnation. As significant, environmentalists for the past few decades have directed their energies not to preserving natural areas by adding parks to the system, but to battling federal agencies beholden to extractive industries.
But parks confer enormous public health, educational and scientific benefits. They afford outstanding and varied outdoor activities for an increasingly urbanized and unfit population. They present and explain natural phenomena and U.S. history, from the geology of the Grand Canyon to military tactics at the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg.
Because they represent relatively intact ecosystems, parks enable scientific research — and species — to flourish; Yellowstone, for example, has been the "lab" for the study of wildfire recovery and for the restoration of the wolf and grizzly bear in the Lower 48.
What's more, parks serve as engines for nearby, often rural, economies. National parks provide stable, diverse and safe jobs — with fewer environmental impacts than resource extraction, such as mining or logging. One study found that for every dollar invested in national parks, four are returned to the surrounding communities. A 2003 study of California's 23 national park sites found that they generated $1.18 billion in total spending, 30,000 jobs and $514 million in personal income.
Nothing beats national parks for affordable, family-friendly vacations. Despite the recession — or more likely because of it — visitation at parks is rising. One survey found that 73 percent of Americans will vacation in a national park this year, up from 62 percent in 2008, when 275 million people visited national parks. Campground bookings are up at many parks — in some cases by as much as 30 percent.
All of this means that adding to the system — especially in the form of natural heritage parks — would be nothing but a boon to the nation. And there are plenty of extraordinary places that merit national park designation. Awe-inspiring, park-quality lands abound. My organization, the New National Parks Project, counts about 500 potential new "units" and expanded parks.
The addition of worthy areas to the park system could double the amount of land in our current system and go a long way toward putting parks within a day's travel of most Americans. It also would put more land in the hands of proven stewards.
Far from being obsolete, park designation is an effective strategy for land protection that also benefits huge segments of the public. With a more receptive administration and Congress in place, now is the time to act.