I just returned from a trip to our California offices, where I took some time to visit a few—too few--of the many parks and reserves in that state. I spent a morning walking through Montgomery Woods in Mendocino County, home to some of the largest and oldest redwoods in the state, and the world. Unlike Muir Woods, which is close to San Francisco, this reserve is empty of people, with parking for fewer than a dozen cars. Trees as spectacular as those in the national park, but tucked away in a quiet corner. A hidden gem.


Later, I swam in the cold water of the Big River at Mendocino Headlands State Park. The river meets the ocean in a beautiful beach that borders the river and then curves along the coast, with the headlands of the town of Mendocino in the distance. The water was very cold, but refreshing. Others – smarter – had wet suits. Dozens of families were enjoying the beach, walking, playing games, boating, or having picnics. All of this was free.


I hiked around Lemon Canyon outside the Sierra Valley, where the state runs campgrounds. I hiked around and swam in Upper Salmon Lake in Tahoe National Forest, and I jumped into Little Truckee River at Webber Falls, also in Tahoe. The water is clean, the rocky outcrops beautiful, the sky dramatic.


I came back thinking that California’s protected lands are a true gift to the people of California, as well as visitors like me. The trip made me think back to the state parks in Massachusetts where I grew up, the marshes and rivers. Or the state parks in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont where I spent endless days rock and ice climbing, hiking and camping, or kayaking. Or those parks in what is now my home state, New York, including the Catskills and the Adirondacks, not to mention the many less heralded ones. When I visit these parks now, I see families camping, people of all ages walking, biking, and swimming. All of these parks are enriching thousands upon thousands of lives. 

National parks, such as Yellowstone (where NRDC takes visitors each year to learn more about our work to protect the greater Rocky Mountain ecosystem), or Yosemite, are often the parks that get the attention. Yet state parks serve two-and-a-half times as many visitors as our national parks do. And then there are county and town parks. All land that is there for all of us to enjoy. This is PUBLIC land. This is your land, and my land.

The Department of the Interior, which manages 20 percent of all the land in the United States, recently released its annual economic report for 2012, in which it attempts to calculate the dollar value of our public lands. Visits to national parks, wildlife refuges and other Interior lands, according to the report, generated $45 billion in economic activity, and supported 372,000 jobs. This is only federal lands, not state and local parks.

Those numbers make our parks pretty valuable assets, but they represent, as the Interior report dryly notes, “a lower bound on the public’s value for these opportunities.” These lands have a value well beyond what the Interior Department calculated, which is the recreational value of the land based on park visits: the expenditures and activity related to canoe rentals, getting a fishing license, buying food, staying in hotels, purchasing souvenirs, and such. The Interior Department didn’t attempt to put a dollar figure on the ecological, cultural, or health value of its lands.

To be fair, they did the best they could with the data they had. How do you put a value on the vista of the Pacific from Route 1? Or the ability to spend a day among redwoods, some of the oldest living things on the planet? How do you measure what you feel when a sea lion joins you for an early morning swim? Or the family bond that is forged and strengthened during a camping trip?

Our public lands have a value that’s obvious to anyone who’s been there, but can be difficult to tally in dollars and cents. Even people who don’t visit these lands are still enjoying the benefits of cleaner air and water, flood protection, and carbon absorption that our natural landscapes provide.

“It’s difficult to quantify the value of protecting our nation’s hunting or ranching heritage, the benefits of healthy watersheds and air quality, or the power of ensuring our treasured landscapes and historic places will be accessible to the next generation,” Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell noted. “These actions have very real contributions to communities, citizens and property values and make us rich in ways that can’t be counted.”

That’s how I felt when I left California. Enriched. And reminded again of why we at NRDC, and our members, are so passionate about protecting our environment. Why we fight to preserve public lands and protect our waters from industrialization. This land, the forests and mountains and fields, the oceans and lakes and streams, it nurtures us, it sustains us, it makes us rich beyond measure.

About the Authors

Peter Lehner

Former Executive Director

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