The National Parks and the Value of History

Heritage tourism is big business. A recent report on the economic impact of the National Park Service (NPS) estimates that 279 million visits to the parks in 2011 generated $30 billion in economic activity and supported 252,000 jobs, both in the park service and in communities surrounding the parks.

While budget-minded legislators may see historic sites and preservation as luxuries that might be trimmed from an austerity budget, cultural resources offer a good return on investment. National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis notes that the parks contribute $10 to the economy for every $1 in tax money invested in the National Park Service, which “makes good stewardship sense and good business sense.”

The NPS study does not break out the percentage of economic activity generated by visitors to historic sites, but it likely comprises a significant proportion. According to Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service, a 2012 report by the Organization of American Historians (OAH), history is a major part of the visitor experience at two-thirds of the 398 national park units. National Park Service visitor data for 2012 suggests that approximately 70 million of 282 trips to national parks were to monuments, historic sites, military parks, and battlefields. These figures do not include tourism generated by the 49 National Heritage Areas, public/private partnerships affiliated with NPS that preserve and interpret historic landscapes.

Visitors flock to military sites such as Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park in Georgia (1,935,909 visitors) or Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania (1,126,577 visitors) and sites such as Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia (3,594,549 visitors) that have long been part of the national story. But they also visit sites associated with the history of industry, such as Lowell National Historical Park in Massachusetts (537,551 visitors) and the history of social justice, such as the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site (707,514 visitors). More than 75,000 people visited the remote Manzanar National Historic Site, which documents the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and was highlighted as a model of effective interpretation by the authors of Imperiled Promise.

The OAH report identified “longstanding funding deficiencies” as a major obstacle to realizing the full potential for interpreting America’s past at its national parks. Funding levels for the National Park Service have been flat since the mid-20th century, even as the number of visitors and the number of sites managed by NPS expanded. Like most other federal agencies, NPS faces mandatory budget cuts under sequestration, which will only exacerbate the problem.

The NPS report provides evidence for arguing that legislators should support continued investment in the parks for economic reasons. Historians should be heartened by the fact that travelers invested time and a considerable amount of money to engage with the past by visiting the parks, even as we ponder the challenges of interpreting the past in all its complexity with limited resources.

2012 Visitation by Park Type

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