Both versions of the economic stimulus package – that passed by the House and by the Senate – include funding for the National Park Service. The bill the House passed last month would allocate $1.7 billion to the National Park Service for “projects to address critical deferred maintenance needs within the National Park System, including roads, bridges and trails,” operation of the National Park System, and for “projects related to the preservation and repair of historical and cultural resources” in the parks. The bill passed by the Senate includes $747 million for the Park Service to use for operation and construction, after $55 million for historic preservation in the parks was cut from a previous version of the bill as part of a compromise amendment.
The discrepancy in the amount of funding will have to be revisited in conference committee, but whether the ultimate amount is $1.7 billion or $747 million, funding for the Park Service in the economic stimulus bill is welcome news for many observers of (and visitors to) the National Park System. As CPR’s 2007 report Squandering Public Resources highlighted, the Park Service has been struggling with insufficient funding for years. For example, the NPS has long operated under a “maintenance backlog” of between $5 and $9.7 billion, a term that refers to the accumulation of maintenance needs throughout the system’s 391 units – needs that have been placed on hold for lack of funding. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the infrastructure that makes up the 84 million acre National Park System includes over 18,000 permanent structures, 8,000 miles of roads, 1,800 bridges and tunnels, 4,400 housing units, and more than 400 dams. All this infrastructure requires maintenance, and the Park Service hasn’t had the funds to keep up. But as the GAO explained, park infrastructure “is essential to the continued use and enjoyment of our national treasures by this and future generations.”
If the only reason to allocate money to the National Park Service would be to provide long overdue funding, the economic stimulus bill wouldn’t be the right vehicle in which to do it. But that’s not the only reason. The money would be good for the economy – both in terms of job creation and revenue gains for areas around the parks. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, visiting the Patuxent Research Wildlife Refuge in Laurel, Maryland on Monday championed the funding for parks and other Department of Interior (DOI) programs in the stimulus bill, noting that 100,000 new jobs would be created as the result. There’s certainly historical precedent for such initiatives—some have pointed to the similarity between current proposals to fund DOI projects and the work performed (and jobs created) by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Works Progress Administration (WPA).
Another economic benefit of the funding may be to increase the parks’ ability to accommodate visitors, many of whom are increasingly seeking domestic vacation destinations during hard times. And when people visit state and national parks, local economies benefit. A study released earlier this month by researchers at Michigan State University concluded that ten national parks in the Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Area (a civil war trail that runs from Virginia to Pennsylvania) attracted 7 million visitors in 2007, contributing $247 million to the parks and surrounding areas. Catoctin Mountain Park, for example, drew nearly 600,000 visitors to the Frederick, Maryland area in 2007, who collectively spent $33.5 million. Nationwide, park visitors spent $11.79 billion, mostly in travel, food, lodging and souvenirs in parks and nearby communities. In fact, National Park Service Director Mary Bomar has said that “[e]very tax dollar spent on national parks resulted in $4 in visitor spending in communities within 50 miles of a national park site.”
The better able the national parks are to handle the influx of visitors looking for domestic vacation destinations, the more local economies will be able to benefit from their spending. In other words, not a bad bang for the buck.