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The National Parks Service is a Successful Program that Proves Government Works Well
It's a myth that government programs are ineffective bureaucracies.
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In Solidarity, Joe
Ronald Reagan said a lot of things, but none of his statements have remained as revered as the quote below.
“I’ve always felt the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the Government, and I'm here to help.”
No statement better summarizes the guiding thought of modern American politics. Since the end of the New Deal era, American politicians and business interests have convinced the public that the government is an inefficient, bumbling bureaucracy, incapable of completing even the simplest tasks. With this opinion taken as fact, America has deferred to private, for-profit solutions to problems that would be better solved by collective, government-orchestrated programs.
But while the fear of “big government” remains ever-present in the American psyche, there are active government programs that disprove Reagan’s claim. One such program, which I had the pleasure of interacting with during my cross-country road trip last week, is the National Parks Service. Through its successful efforts in both the preservation of national parks and the entertainment of visitors, the National Parks Service (NPS) proves that if government agencies are given a clear mission and sufficient funding, they can exceed expectations, create positive outcomes, and build a better society than for-profit alternatives.
The National Parks Service
Since its founding in 1916, the National Parks Service has fulfilled its mission of “preserving, unimpaired, the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.”
With over 20,000 employees, the NPS stewards the 85 million acres that make up the country’s 510 recognized national parks, trails, and rivers. Every day, park rangers complete a litany of tasks, including but not limited to:
Patrolling to ensure both wildlife and visitors are safe,
Constructing infrastructure that enables visitors of all abilities to explore and enjoy the parks,
Conducting scientific research to better understand the parks’ ecology, and
Entertaining and educating park visitors.
Points #2, #3, and #4 are essential to highlight, as the NPS rarely gets credit for them. While one might assume rangers spend their days stopping people from riding the buffalo in Yellowstone or scaling the walls of the Grand Canyon, supervision is only a fraction of the organization’s duties.
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For fiscal year 2023, the NPS received $3.475 billion in taxpayer funding1. The majority of this (84%) went to support everyday park operations, such as visitor centers, education programs, facility operations, and search and rescue teams. 7% of the funding went to constructing and repairing new and existing facilities, with allocations based “on criteria related to the condition of assets, their importance to park purposes, and project benefits and risks.” 6% went to the Historic Preservation Fund (HPF), which identifies and preserves important monuments, environments, and locations.2 This year, the HPF used its money to preserve sites crucial to American history, such as indigenous graveyards, the internment camps filled with Japanese-Americans during WWII, and the Pullman Monument, an epicenter of the early 20th-century American labor movement. The remaining 4% of funds are spent assisting local and tribal governments in their preservation efforts, as well as a fundraising program that matches individual donations to the NPS.
So, is this money well spent? After eight days of hiking and camping in national parks, and then spending all of today looking into the organization’s performance data, I have to say the National Parks Service is an unequivocally successful program that proves the positive contributions government programs can bring to everyday life.
Though attendance dipped during the pandemic, national parks saw a rapid bounce-back in 2022. About 312 million people visited a national park last year, continuing the 40-year trend of increasing visitation rates.
There’s no question as to why both Americans and foreigners (foreign attendees make up about 40% of all national park visitors3) flock to these locations: the National Park Service is doing a great job enabling the enjoyment of these natural wonders.
Additionally, the funding of the NPS has positive effects on the U.S. economy. For every $1 invested in national parks, visitors spend approximately $14.47 in the surrounding economies. According to a recent report from the Department of the Interior, in 2022, park visitors created a record-high $50.3 billion benefit to the national economy.
With consistently increasing visitation rates, a near fifteen-fold economic benefit, and a remarkably low cost (the $3.475B given to the NPS in 2022 is just .55% of the U.S. budget), the National Park Service stands as a testament to the effectiveness of government programs.
Having personally spent the last week as a guest of the NPS, I can attest to the organization’s prowess and professionalism. The visitor centers, cafes, and gift shops rival any for-profit enterprise and have the added benefit of financially supporting the parks, as opposed to those at other vacation destinations that only increase the profit margins of Universal or Disney. The campsites are clean and well-maintained, and they even had showers and laundry services, which were not available at the private site we spent a night at. The rangers are true professionals, always eager to teach visitors about the wonders that surround them. We were even treated to a free star-gazing experience under the Milky Way, complete with a viewing of Saturn and the Andromeda Galaxy through a multi-thousand dollar telescope. For comparison, I found a similar experience online provided by a for-profit company with tickets starting at $149.4
Perhaps I am biased in my fondness for the National Park Service. To be honest, I’m still riding my vacation high, fondling recalling my week exploring the most wonderful sights in the world, which, thanks to the NPS being a public entity, cost me less than $300. But if I am being overly praiseful, it’s only because I have seen firsthand how effective the NPS is at achieving its stated goals. Not only should the National Parks Service be widely celebrated, but its continued success should remind us all that collective programs are a proven, viable solution to the many problems currently plaguing Americans.
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