On the American parks and economic forces (Draft, May 17, 2004)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

On the American parks and economic forces (Draft, May 17, 2004)

By Paul M. Bray

The Director of the National Park System talks about a seamless web of parks in America. In fact, America parks and protected areas are very diverse and it is hard to categorize or even identify common threads. Analysis of America’s diverse parks and protected areas is further complicated because neither the IUCN classification system for protected areas nor any other classification system for parks and protected areas is commonly used in the United States.

Before discussing the relationship between parks and protected areas and economic forces and objectives, an over view of the various types of American parks is useful.

America’s National Parks are well known around the world. They have been called the best idea America has ever had. With the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, America’s national parks have protected many fragile natural and cultural landscapes and provided opportunities for adventure, inspiration, relaxation, and education. They have also had economic development effect.

Yellowstone represents only one of twenty-one types of parks and protected areas or resources like historic landmarks that make up the 387 units in the National Park System. The System includes areas as diverse as backcountry wilderness and portions of an old industrial city, Lowell, Massachusetts. A writer for the New York Times wrote: “There is no ‘park’ at Lowell National Historical Park; the entire city is the park”. Lowell with its emphasis on protecting the product of human activity is a far cry from Yellowstone which some have called the last large intact ecosystem in the temperate zone of the earth.

Along with the national park there is the national monument, national preserve, national reserve, national seashore, national lakeshore, national historical park, national battlefield park, national military park, national battlefield, national battlefield site, national historic site, national memorial, national wild, scenic, and/or recreational river, national parkway, national scenic and historic trail, national memorial, national recreation area, national scientific reserve, national capital parks and a miscellany of units grouped simply as “other” that are administered directly by the National Park Service.

The nation’s natural and cultural patrimony is complemented by State parks. New York State, for example, established America’s first state park system in 1924 and today its state park and historic site system consists of more than 160 state parks and 34 historic sites. It includes natural wonders like Niagara Falls and Letchworth State Park called the Grand Canyon of the east and recreation parks like the Hudson River Park located on top of a sewage treatment facility along the Hudson River in New York City. Although New York’s state park effort began in order to preserve scenic landscapes, today providing recreational opportunities at facilities including bathing beaches, campsites, boat launches and golf courses has become a major objective. The State park program also functions beyond park facilities through annual Olympic style competitions including senior games and games for the physically handicapped with more than 70,000 athletes participating in both summer and winter games

In addition to New York’s State park system, New York has two very large wilderness or wild forest parks, the Adirondack Park and the Catskill Park. The Adirondack Park and Catskill Parks are unusual in America because they are not exclusively public estate parks. The Adirondack Park was called a “Park of man and nature” during its centennial celebration in 1002. A little more than half of the Adirondack Park’s 6 million acres and the Catskill Parks 675,000 acres are privately owned (a mix of small settlements and privately owned forest land) while the remaining land, the public estate, is protected to remain “forever wild” under the State Constitution. The private land in the Adirondack Park is subject to State enacted development restrictions while the private land in the Catskill Park does not have a state private land use plan.

At the urban level there have been four primary types of parks: the pastoral garden like Olmsted’s Central Park in New York City, playgrounds that developed at the beginning of the 20th century to meet the recreational needs of the growing immigrant population, recreational facilities that may be swimming pools, stadium for baseball or football or other active recreational activities and finally what urban park historian, Galen Cranz, calls the parks of the open space era ranging from vest pocket parks to whole urban settings identified for the cultural value and with some traditional park like conditions. This open space era breaks the wall between traditional parks and the larger community and landscape.

Current Trends

National parks and traditional state parks have faced many threats in recent decades. The New York Times declared in an editorial on May 16, 2004 that: “Hardly any of the Park Service’s 387 parks, historic sites and monuments are trouble-free. Joshua Tree National Park, in California, is threatened by residential development. Padre Island National Seashore and Big Thicket National Preserve, both in Texas, by oil and gas drilling. Roads and buildings in Glacier National Park are in appalling shape; Yosemite is choked with traffic. Biscayne National Park is vexed by over fishing and pollution. The backlog of deferred maintenance has budged little from the $5 billion deficit President Bush inherited; the operating budget is about two-thirds of what the parks need just to maintain the status quo.”

At the same time traditional parks are threatened and declining in quality, park and protected area activity has been increasingly focused on protection of open space and establishment of heritage areas. Open space may include traditional parks but very often once open space is protected it is not necessarily managed as a park. A New York State guide to open space planning defines open space by what it is not by declaring, “open space is land that is not intentionally developed for residential, commercial, industrial or institutional use. It serves many purposes, whether it is publicly or privately owned. It includes agricultural and forest land, undeveloped shorelines, undeveloped scenic lands, public parks and preserves. It also includes water bodies such as lakes and bays.” In other words it is land and water where development cannot occur. New York’s Governor has set a goal of protection for 1 million additional acres of opens space.

The open space preservation movement at the local level has primarily been concerned with controlling suburban sprawl development and protecting agricultural land. Land trusts that are non-governmental organizations have been organized in many communities to acquire, for example, easements or property interests in farmland to protect “working landscapes” for farming and prohibiting commercial or residential development. Nationally, NGO organizations like the Nature Conservancy buy environmentally sensitive land threatened by development. It is now broadening its activities to the protection of entire ecosystems that threatened species need to survive. The protected land is rarely considered to be parkland in the sense that the public use, if any, is passive and generally limited to hiking.

The heritage area is a new phenomenon of the last three decades that began at the municipal or local level in order to protect and manage coherent urban settings and regional landscapes (cultural landscapes) for intersecting values of conservation, education, recreation and economic development. Each heritage area represents a cultural theme like defense for an urban community that was a strong hold during the War of 1812 and transportation for an urban community know for its early rail and canal facilities. This completely breaks the mold of public estate parks and resembles countryside parks in Great Britain like the Peak District Park in a heavily industrial region or Italian parks like Alpi Apuana with its cultural theme being the story of marble mining.

The U.S. Congress has created more than twenty national heritage areas and States like New York State, Pennsylvania and Maryland have statewide heritage area systems. New York has two national heritage areas, the Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area and the Erie Canalway National Heritage Area, and seventeen State designated heritage areas including portions of cities like Buffalo, Syracuse and Albany and three regional heritage areas like the Mohawk Valley Heritage Corridor that is approximately 100 miles in length.

Heritage areas have been called “partnership parks” and represent a change in thinking to a more territorial or regional planning approach. Former National Park Service Deputy Director Denis P. Galvin described this transformation by saying, “The future of our parks, their ecological integrity and quality of their historic settings, depend on our ability to establish lasting partnerships with adjoining landowners and communities. We must move beyond the old notions about conflicts between parks and adjacent lands to a new era that recognizes the shared interests of parks and their neighbors in promoting outstanding environmental quality and sustainable economic development”. This has come about both because of the public increase environmental awareness and expectations and the simple fact that 85% of parks face threats to their assets from outside their borders. (1994 GAO Report) Parks can no longer consider themselves isolated islands.

Programs are also growing to increase waterfront access and development of trails and greenways for recreation and as environmental amenities. The term greenway has been applied in many different applications. It can generally be said to have the essential characteristics of linkage, coordination or connectedness across the landscape for purposes including recreation like hiking, biking and boating and celebrating cultural heritage or the natural environment. The Hudson River Valley Greenway is a large regional landscape on both sides of the Hudson River stretching for approximately 150 miles. Its program includes a form of regional or territorial planning as well as hiking and boating trail development. Most trail and greenway activity is local. The National Park Service gets involved through its Rivers and Trails Program that offers technical assistance to local communities.

Underlying Forces in Creation of Parks and Protected Areas

Parks emerged in America to fulfill a mix of needs and respond to the contradictory ideals of preservation, recreation and utilitarian conservation. Each ideal individually and as they interrelated affected the intersection between parks and economic activity.

The preservation ideal derives from the unique importance of parks to the meaning of the American nation. Environmental historian Albert Runte writes, “the national park evolved to fulfill cultural rather than environmental needs. The search for a national identity…was the initial impetus behind scenic preservation”. Compared to Europe, America lacked an “established past” in the forms of art, architecture and literature”. According to Runte, “The modern discovery of Yosemite Valley and the Sierra redwoods, in 1851 and 1852, respectively, provided the first believable evidence since Niagara Falls that the United States had a valid claim to cultural recognition through natural wonders.”

The great parks or crowned jewels like Yellowstone National Parks have been called nature’s cathedrals and “a sheer expression of democracy, the separation of these lands form the public domain, to be held for the public, instead of being opened to private settlement”. The relationship of National Parks to America’s identity and democratic ideals is the basis for law and practice holding National Parks to have an “increased” or higher standard of protection, this higher standard based on maintenance or achieving superb environmental quality. Preservation is also advanced by nature parks representing a counterpoint to America’s commercial culture where resources and land are commodities to feed endless consumption. Many Americans look to their parks as an escape from the commercial culture. The preservation ideal is realized in designation of wilderness areas or preservation for its own sake keeping society and nature apart.

Beginning with Frederick Law Olmsted who shaped park making at local, state and national levels, a philosophy of leisure based on nature’s regenerative powers for an urbanizing society influenced the path of park creation and management. This is the recreation ideal. Park historian Ethan Carr has written, “For Olmsted, public enjoyment provided the ultimate purpose and rationale for landscape preservation, whether at Central Park or Yosemite Valley”. Olmsted “thought it most appropriate that parks have restaurants and hotels and carriage paths and trails so that a leisurely appreciation of nature was possible”.

The third conservation ideal was based on notions of scientific forestry, dam building and “game management” that would control the exploitation of timber, water and grass while at the same time providing perpetual yields of products. Both conservation values and utilitarian benefits could simultaneously be derived from application of this ideal to protected/managed areas. Its leading advocate, Gifford Pinchot, believed that properly regulated dam construction, grazing and logging be permitted in National Parks. This was seen as a major threat by preservationists.

Since the beginning of the environmental era around 1970 these three ideals have been complemented by many other forces that has have park and conservation activity into many new and different directions. On the one hand, concern about environmental quality casts attention on man’s entire landscape when it comes to protection air and water quality and other environmental resources, not just special places set aside as parks. Despite America’s vast amount of space, the pace of land consuming development since World War II has brought home the realization that land is finite and open land, wildlife habitats and water resources are endangered by uncontrolled development. In addition, many individual issues lake protecting drinking water, access to waterways, wetland protection, threats to endangered species, protection of urban and rural amenities including cultural heritage resources and loss of farmland have brought park like management issues into every community and have blurred the line between parks and environmental planning. It has resulted in recognition of the interrelation between natural and cultural resources and preservation and economic objectives.

Relationship between parks and economic activities

The relationships between parks and economic forces are varied and complex. While parks have been a refuge from the commercial culture of a capitalistic society, there have been times when park advocates have used commercial and economic arguments to advance park and protected area interests.

Parks have been:

(1) The nation’s primary institution for preservation of natural and cultural resources against the impacts of economic exploitation; (2) The economic engine supporting businesses and jobs in neighboring communities; and (3) The victim of commercialization in neighboring communities and the effects of economic activity like air pollution and neighboring mining operations.

Yellowstone National Park established in 1872 is an example of a park that has preserved natural treasures while being a force for economic development and more recently a victim of commercialization. The establishment of Yellowstone National Park was a means for scenic and wildlife preservation within its borders at the same time it helped create a market for the expansion west of the railroad and later the growth of automobile interests. Today, Yellowstone like many National Parks is the victim of a commercialized resort atmosphere in communities at their gateways.

Use of parks for economic development

Tourism has been the economic activity with the closest link to parks. Park historian Richard West Sellars stated that it is “virtually impossible to separate the idea of national parks from tourism development and economics (a connection dating back to the Northern Pacific Railroad’s support of the 1872 Yellowstone legislation)”. The National Park Service has sought to develop its parks for recreational tourism at the same time it is preserving scenery and protecting wildlife. This has been a delicate balance.

The connections between parks and economic development have been closer at the state and municipal level.

New York State considers its parks, beaches, scenic landscapes, historic sites, lakes, streams and coastal area to be central to its tourism and travel industry. State Parks and Historic Sites alone generate almost $500 million in sales to local businesses from out-of-state visitors. Another $20 million is generated through tax revenue.

Economic development is a primary objective of the New York State’s heritage area system. The System plan states, “The unique image of each park (a.k.a. heritage area) and the incentives offered through the program will help make underutilized structures an attractive investment opportunity. Vacant properties will be developed for hotel, entertainment and other uses that are difficult to accommodate in existing structures”. (This is referring, for example, to abandoned places of production in older cities that can be adaptively reused.) The Plan goes on to point out that the parks that often encompass declining cities “will be advertised in brochures, identified on state maps, and promoted as high quality cultural attractions”. Consultants predicted that the first 13 heritage areas would attract over 6 million annual visitors and generate 3,800 permanent new jobs in the tourism industry. Much would depend on private investment attracted by the initial public investment.

The American Planning Association points out that in addition to the intrinsic environmental, aesthetic and recreational benefits, parks are a source of positive economic benefits.

In the 19th century Olmsted studied the impact of Central Park in New York City on adjacent property values. Creating Central Park was a $13 million investment by the City. Olmsted found that in the 17 years between 1856 and 1873 the value of property around the Park increased by $209 million. The growth in property taxes collected by the City from that increase property value exceeded the City’s annual debt payments for its investment in parkland and improvements by $4 million.

In the case of urban parks, planners offer 5 reasons why parks and recreational facilities are good for economic development and economic health of host cities. These reasons are:

(1) Real property values are positively affected. (2) Municipal revenues are increased from growth in tourism. (3) Affluent retirees are retained or attracted. (4) Knowledge workers and talent are attracted to work and live. (5) Homebuyers are attracted to purchase homes.

Open space protection advocates point out economic benefits from their activity. They argue that open land, scenic and historic sites and availability of recreation are important to quality of life and are a key factor in attracting and retaining economic investment especially for industries of the mind like high tech. Other benefits are retaining open land can be the least costly approach to environmental protection. For example, protecting open land in the watershed of the New York City reservoirs is far less costly than having to spend billions of dollars to construct drinking water treatment facilities. Creating more dense development can reduce the costs of utilities, transportation and public works construction and management.

Case studies

Yellowstone and the Adirondack Park are two parks that exemplify how parks serve a wide continuum of human needs and managers have to fully engage in regional, ecosystem and pluralistic planning.

The management of Yellowstone has become increasingly engaged with a wide range of state, private including farmers and hunters and other Federal stakeholders in planning for what has become called the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE). While some people have long desired to have the borders of Yellowstone expanded to protect watershed and head waters of its rivers, studies in the 1960s revealed that grizzly bears are a single interacting population whose fate is linked to habitats on a sprawling mosaic of federal, state and private lands beyond the Park’s borders. Getting the correct balance between the economy and ecology for park lands and the management of private lands in the park’s ecosystem has drawn park managers to look well beyond their traditional boundaries.

Movement into the realm of ecosystem planning and management has been a bumpy path. Regional planning is now a reality in management of Yellowstone. Paul Schullery points out in Searching for Yellowstone, “the National Park Service is routinely involved in regional planning. The park’s connection to the rest of GYE, made clear by the wanderings of grizzly bears, the migration of elk and bison, the geothermal aquifers that cross park boundaries in many directions, are now seen as giving Yellowstone superintendents a strong mandate to speak out on issues affecting GYE. Management of the park, for so many decades a fairly contained assignment, now involves paying attention to a minimum of 20 million acres of land, 90 percent of which is beyond the boundaries.”

Yet, when the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service produced a document, “Vision for the Future of the Greater Yellowstone Area”, it was a “political disaster. It brought to the surface the full range of political, philosophic and economic conflicts. The economic controversies drive much of the Yellowstone debate even as the western economy changes from the anti-park extractive industries to a recreational and environmentally friendly economy that is much more compatible with the park.

Historian Samuel P. Hays describes this transition as follows:

“For most of the nation’s media and for many of its specialists in environmental policy, western controversies are thought of as a conflict between those within the region who seek to develop its minerals, water, and grazing lands and those in the East who wish to restrict such activities in favor of environmental objectives. Such a view was fostered by leaders of the Sagebrush Rebellion, by Ronald Regan during the 1980 campaign, and by his Secretary of Interior, James Watt. The West symbolized those creative entrepreneurial energies that had been thwarted and that the new administration pledged to release.

These assessments are incorrect. Vast changes of quite a different sort have been taking place in the West to create a new indigenous environmental movement that has challenged the old commodity economy in a fierce struggle for western turf. To whom does the West belong-the old or the new? The contest over the answer to that question is now the political drama of the West. One observes a slow and persistent incremental advantage for the newer environmental West and a fierce but slowly losing resistance on the part of the older commodity West.”

The Adirondack Park, called a contested landscape because of conflicts between local residents and metropolitan environmental interests, is also undergoing an economic transition that is taking the park beyond a battle mode towards creating a sustainable economy.

The Park has a permanent population of about 130,000 and attracts about nine million visitors a year mostly in the warmest of the summer months. Due to the park’s remoteness, most of the economy is based on seasonal tourism, public sector jobs and lower paying service industry jobs. Since the communities in the park have been for the most part static and hostile to outside interest, they were ignored by environmental interests who concentrated on they felt was the prize, increasing the State’s ownership of land, which is constitutionally protected.

In part, transition from conflict to more collaboration is the result of an increase in retirees from larger cities who have a strong interest in stewarding the park’s environment. They have become a political force in part by creating an active NGO called the Resident’s Committee for the protection of the Adirondack Park. In addition, major environmental NGOs like the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) based at the Bronx zoo in New York City has established an Adirondack Conservation and Communities Program. WCS had been active in the Adirondack Park researching forest ecosystems and key wildlife species. Recently, it has turned towards improving local economies as an answer to facilitating environmental concerns.

WCS, for example, has worked with communities like Tupper Lake, a wood products community in the northern Adirondack Park, to overcome the impediments to sustainable development including isolation, failure to communicate, lack of coordination and a black and white perception of major issues. Through roundtable discussion in the community and providing technical assistance, WCS recommended the following:

-Mobilize the community from within by, for example, using available resources to improve the community. Examples could be a river walk or renovation of the railroad depot -Focus improvement efforts around common interests that will facilitate community development like stating an industrial park for wood products businesses -Identifying existing assets like historic resources and the communities’ waterfront -Niche identification, what is special about the community -Foster consistency and coordination among projects such as consistent styles for lighting, signs, tree plantings, flowers and parking -Have a regional perspective at local level -Collaborate with others including neighboring communities, NGOs and the State on the future of the Adirondack Park including bicycle and waterway projects

What is happening in Yellowstone and the Adirondack Park is an evolutionary change from parks as inward looking islands to the parks as participant in larger communities and a force for collaboration in both stewardship and sustainable development.


Over time American parks have been both a tool for economic improvement and a victim of economic forces. That continues today, but with new concepts developing that change the park management approach from inward looking to engaging in regional planning and a wide range of partnerships. There is a growing realization that to fully protect the nation’s natural and cultural resources and achieve aspirations for compatible conservation, economic, social and environmental objectives, a common vision and collective or collaborative approach to park management are necessary.


Robin W. Winks, The National Park Service Act of 1916; “A Contradictory Mandate”?, 74 Dev.U.L.Rev. 75 (1997)

Alfred Runte, The American Experience, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 1979

Richard West Sellars, Preserving Nature in the National Park: A History, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1997

Samuel P. Hays, Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency: The Progressive Conservation Movement 1890-1920, Harvard University Press, Cambridge and London, 1969

Paul Schullery, Searching for Yellowstone: Ecology and Wonder in the Last Wilderness, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston & New York, 1997

Heidi Elizabeth Kretser, Community Development in the Adirondacks: Bridging Healthy Towns to Healthy Environments, unpublished case study