National Parks are worth $92 billion to maintain, according to CSU-led research

Erik Petrovich

(Rocky Mountain National Park / Collegian File Photo)
Rocky Mountain National Park is one of 13 national parks in Colorado. (File Photo / Collegian)

How much would Americans pay not to lose the National Park Service, our national parks and programs? According to a paper published by CSU and Harvard University researchers, the value of national parks in the United States is $92 billion. However, that number does not take into account tourism or the worth of the land itself – it instead attempts to value the National Parks Service as a whole, which turns 100 this year.

According to the paper, most of the value of the National Park Service is referred to as a non-market value, a term that refers to the inability to put a cash value on things like biological diversity, clean air or the natural beauty of the parks. In fact, the paper admits that it is “impossible to estimate the full value of protecting vital ecosystems and lands.”


Instead, researchers asked study participants how much they would pay in increased taxes to avoid being deprived of these natural services. 

According to Linda Bilmes, a professor of public finance at Harvard University who helped lead the research, the process of finding the total economic value of the parks was like asking someone how much they would pay to not lose their left arm. Bilmes said that while the National Park Service puts out an annual measurement of visitor spending in the parks, the research team was asking a broader question, one that also included people who never visit the parks, but value them for their very existence.

“I might put a value on protecting the arctic despite never going to the arctic, or I might put a value on Gettysburg not being turned into a Wal-Mart, even if I don’t plan to go there,” Bilmes said. 

Colorado is home to a large chunk of national parks, with 13 located within the state varying from Rocky Mountain National Park to the Pony Express trail. Colorado’s parks alone see upwards of seven million visitors each year who bring in about $450 million to the state economy, according to the Colorado National Park Service.

Michelle Haefele, PhD, who works in the school of agricultural and resource economics at CSU, said the project was originally started to try to identify new ways to fund the National Park Service, and was originally based on a thesis project from two of Bilmes’ students at Harvard. 

The $92 billion figure is not meant to represent anything tangible, and Haefele said knowing how much the public values the parks is something that should be considered along with other measurements.

“Economic value here is just one part of it – there are benefits to communities, economic impacts, there are benefits from carbon sequestration, scientific research and many other benefits,” Haefele said. “What I would hope is greater funding for the park service and greater awareness of the value of these lands.”

Collegian Executive Editor Erik Petrovich can be reached at or on Twitter @EAPetrovich