The Politics of Recreation and Tourism  

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Aacadia National Park photo


By Mark Okrant, NH Travel Guru

Last week, the national media reported that a bipartisan group of senators introduced the Restore Our Parks Act. This bill would establish a National Park Service Legacy Restoration Fund, thereby providing a reliable stream of revenue that would allow the NPS to address its growing backlog of maintenance and repairs.

Mark Okrant, NH Travel Guru

According to The Pew Charitable Trusts, NPS visitor spending totaled 18 billion dollars during 2017. Those expenditures supported 306 thousand jobs and produced nearly $35 billion in indirect and induced spending. Unfortunately, those figures cannot be sustained without the aforementioned maintenance and repairs.

Those of us living on the east coast are less likely to patronize national parks. In large part, this is a result of geography.  Simply stated, the distributions of federal outdoor recreation spaces and the nation’s population are not a match.


% of US Population               % of Public Lands

Northeast                               21                                              5

South                                      35                                            11

North Central                         20                                            12

West                                       24                                            72


Two further statistics may help to explain things:

  • 1% of all public recreation areas account for 88% of public recreation acreage
  • 66% of all public recreation areas account for less than 1% of acreage

What does this mean? The simple fact is that a very small number of extraordinarily large federal recreation areas—primarily located hundreds of miles west of the Mississippi River—were set aside to provide outdoor activity space for the nation. Elsewhere, the states and municipalities serve those needs for our populace. In particular, the lands comprising the National Park Service have special attributes that need to be protected for the enjoyment of present and future generations.

Four federal agencies have the greatest responsibility for overseeing federal lands. These are the Department of the Interior (includes the National Park Service), The Department of Agriculture (includes the National Forest Service), the Department of Defense (includes the Army Corps of Engineers, which has dam and reservoir oversight), and the National Wildlife Preservation System.

The federal government’s stewardship of public lands is based upon the following thinking: A) preserve lands of national significance, B) manage lands for broadest recreation benefit consistent with other uses, and C) cooperate with states through technical and financial assistance.

There is a good deal of ambiguity inherent in the federal philosophy, particularly as it pertains to item B above. Traditionally, the two political parties have differed in their interpretations of what is meant by “ . . . broadest recreation benefit consistent with other uses.” While Democrats have tended to emphasize the need to protect federal lands for recreation use, including sightseeing, many Republicans have argued that the framers of this philosophy intended that public land be made available to primary economic activities: agriculture, forestry, fishing, and even mining.

In the past, while serving Democratic administrations, the appointed Secretary of Interior has been someone with a sustainability focus (for example, Bruce Babbitt during the Clinton years). Meanwhile, when a Republican has been in the White House, the position has been held by a pro-development spokesperson (for example James Watt during Reagan’s administration).

With this history in mind, and especially in light of the political gridlock that presently characterizes our nation’s capital, it is absolutely refreshing to see that the Restore Our Parks Act has been co-sponsored by two Republicans, a Democrat, and an Independent. Kudos go to Senators Portman (R-OH), Alexander (R-TN), Warner D-VA), and King I-ME). May this responsible action be the first of more to come. The welfare of our national parks, and our nation as a whole, depends on this.

After forty years as an educator, researcher, and consultant, Mark Okrant joins to offer concise, informative insight into New Hampshire’s travel and tourism industry as a business, while showcasing the people and places you want to know. This guy’s really been around. And, he’s funny, too.

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