When you’re sitting by the campfire watching the stars, listening to the loons call in the distance, it’s easy to forget the national and regional importance of national parks. Peaceful night sounds tend to sooth our psyches. And a night sky with millions of points of light provides a dramatic perspective of the cosmos, an experience that can be hard to shake.
At those times, most of us aren’t thinking about statistics, for example, that 331 million people visited U.S. national parks last year, according to a 2016 analysis of visitor spending by the National Park Service; or that visitors spent $18.4 billion in the “gateway regions” around those parks.
Or that in Michigan, where we have five: Pictured Rocks and Sleeping Bear national lakeshores, Isle Royale National Park, Keweenaw National Historical Park and River Raisin National Battlefield Park, 2.7 million visitors spent $235 million in surrounding communities which, in turn, supported 3,800 jobs and generated $333.6 million in economic output, according to the report.
The financial benefits, of course, are one of many hidden values. Another is national park lands belong to the public. They were set aside to provide us with special places in perpetuity, unique landscapes and natural features that otherwise could disappear.
“It’s common that people forget that,” said Lynn McClure, Midwest director for the National Parks Conservation Association, a national nonprofit that advocates for national parks. “One of the biggest challenges of long-term protection and stewardship is the need for awareness of the high value they have in our lives.”
“(National) parks in Michigan are pretty special, but the intrinsic values are hard to measure,” McClure continued. “How do you feel when you stand on an overlook at Sleeping Bear and (Lake Michigan) looks like the Mediterranean? Or, when you go to the River Raisin battlefield and feel a connection with those before you who warded off the enemy.”
Those are difficult to measure, but the experiences are important.
National parks, like the lakeshores and Isle Royale, also help protect the environment. They are places where water quality and native species are protected, places where scientists can study nature, where large areas are left in a natural state. They are places to enjoy, as well.
Yellowstone National Park was the nation’s first, created by Congress in 1872. Its creation propelled a world-wide movement, according to the NPS. More than 100 nations now have the equivalent, 1,200 parks in all. The National Park Service, though, wasn’t created until 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson signed “The Organic Act,” creating the service to provide uniform management of national parks across the U.S. The act specified they should be managed to “… conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
Providing a land legacy for future generations is one of the act’s highest values. Without it, those special places could disappear having been sold to the highest bidder, often with loss of access for the public.
“The law of the land assures these lands will be around for a long time after we are gone,” McClure said. “The majesty of the cliffs and shores in these parks will be there forever, and that’s an incredible asset that (some) other countries don’t have.”
Howard Meyerson is an award-winning journalist and managing editor of Michigan BLUE Magazine.