Dollar for Dollar: Current Issues in Valuing America’s National Parks

How do we determine the value of something? Think of an item that you own that was given to you by someone you care about, such as a small trinket given to you by a family member who has since passed away or a piece of jewelry given to you by a parent or loved one. Once you have an object in mind, consider how much you would be willing to pay if that object was stolen or lost? Now think about how does that price compare to how much that item was originally purchased for?

Unsurprisingly, people often overvalue objects or services that have a strong emotional connection (Barsky & Nash, 2002). Because many objects and services can have intangible or non-market value, it can be difficult to quantify the exact dollar amount someone would be willing to pay. Despite the apparent importance of intangible values, many ecosystem service valuation techniques often only involve appraisal of tangible and material services (e.g., fresh water) and largely ignore intangible services (Chan et al., 2012). In the context of national parks in the United States, how are tangible and intangible services valued and how does this value reflect future management of America’s national parks?

Recent and controversial headlines in the news paint a future for the National Park Service with potential for unforeseen consequences. In April of 2017, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that required federal agencies to review various policies, of which contained the National Park Service 9B rules.  If the 9B rules are repealed, the results could open access for oil companies to drill for oil and gas in national parks (e.g., in Grand Tetons, Fig 1. or Everglades, Fig 2.) (Vox, 2017; NY Times, 2017). Based on the action of the current administration, how does opening the national parks to oil drilling reflect the values assigned to these special places?

Figure 1. Grand Tetons (photo courtesy of Wikipedia).  

Figure 1. Grand Tetons (photo courtesy of Wikipedia).  

Applying the concepts of individual and assigned environmental values (Dietz et al., 2005) to opening parks for oil drilling suggests that the current administration mostly values national parks as instrumental, holding high economic value. However, instrumental values are not the only method to valuate and subsequently manage national parks and other protected areas. For some people, national parks are valuable for multiple reasons, such as aesthetic or recreational values (van Riper & Kyle, 2014). The multiple values that can be ascribed to national parks suggests that simply evaluating the economic provision of national parks is not a responsible method to manage these iconic landscapes. By incorporating intangible values of national parks, park managers can develop a broader understanding of the importance of national parks and special places to different user groups. In order to remain a resilient agency that preserves the landscape for future generations of the United States, it is necessary for park managers and administrators to evaluate parks for both their tangible and intangible values.