• Create partnerships between public agencies and private recreation and conservation groups to provide benefits to the public at a lower cost;
  • Adopt regional planning approaches that recognize recreation use and demand trends to maximize the use of limited funds for park acquisition and maintenance. Care must be taken to avoid overextending limited operation and maintenance budgets by creating too many new properties;
  • Establish state and local dedicated funding sources for parks and recreation facilities to ensure consistent future funding;
  • Continue to increase federal leadership through programs like the Centennial Initiative and the Land and Water Conservation Fund to meet growing population demands for outdoor recreation opportunities;
  • Establish a federal commission to study ways to improve access to recreation in the United States. A bipartisan commission could assess use and demand of outdoor recreational facilities and better track the spending and effectiveness of federal investments in parks and recreation facilities.


State/Local Parks

Americans frequent their state and local parks more often than national parks. State parks entertained more than 730 million visitors during the period July 2006 through June 2007, and the vast majority (90.9%) were day visitors. During this time, states acquired 56,681 acres of parkland and spent more than $463 million on new construction of state park improvements to accommodate growing populations.1

States and territories received nearly $28 million in federal funds in 2007 through the Land and Water Conservation Fund Program. However, they reported more than $15 billion in unmet needs, a significant increase over the amount reported in 2006.2

The 75 largest cities in the U.S., home to more than 51 million Americans, reported spending just under $5 billion in fiscal year 2006 on urban park and recreation facilities and programming, adding more than 5,000 acres of green space. Despite such record spending, the amount of parkland per resident has declined due to rapid increases in population. In 2006, the 60 largest cities averaged 18.88 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents. In 2007, that number fell to 16.72 acres per 1,000 residents.3 As suburban areas become more densely populated with infill developments, parkland will become more important in maintaining residents’ health, safety, and stable property values.

Parks enjoy broad public support. Even in the current troubling economic environment, voters in November 2008 approved a record amount of new funding measures for parks and open space. Voters supported 62 of 87 (71%) conservation finance ballot measures, representing a commitment to spend $7.3 billion on parks and open space. The $8.4 billion total approved by ballot measures in all of 2008 is the highest single-year amount in 10 years.4

Parks spending may be an easy target for budget hawks, but in reality state spending on parks represents a miniscule part of overall expenditures—0.231% on average. California’s percentage was the highest in the country, but is still less than 1% of the overall state budget (0.979%).1 A lack of consistent data to track usage of state and local parks makes it difficult to determine unmet needs and to benchmark against other states and communities.

National Parks

During the second half of the 20th century, the National Park Service (NPS) suffered from stagnant budget appropriations, even as popularity and use skyrocketed. The result was an estimated $6.1 billion maintenance backlog by the beginning of the 21st century. The NPS consists of 391 units covering 84 million acres in 49 states, the District of Columbia, and 5 territories. National parks entertained more than 274 million visitors in fiscal year 2007, up from 266 million in 2003.

To address the staggering maintenance backlog, the Bush administration first undertook a comprehensive effort to inventory its assets and better manage improvements. It also committed $4.9 billion over 5 years to directly address park facilities and maintenance beginning in fiscal year 2002. The NPS received $2.39 billion in 2008.

In 2006, the Bush administration established the Centennial Initiative, aimed at preparing for the 100th anniversary of the founding of the NPS. The Centennial Initiative provides federal matching funds to supplement private donations to enhance parks across the country according to the NPS strategic goals.5


Acres of Protected Land

Region Total acres Protected Protected Acres per Capita % of Region Protected
Mid-Atlantic 10,304,151.6 0.18 9.2%
Midwest 30,139,330.5 0.45 6.3%
New England 4,839,352.7 0.34 12.0%
Rocky Mountain 95,015,799.3 9.06 29.0%
Southeast 28,960,508.7 0.44 9.7%
Southwest 37,250,994.8 1.04 10.3%
West 267,143,832.8 5.21 41.5%
Total 473,653,970.5 1.57 20.5%

SOURCE National Trust for Public Land, Conservation Almanac



The United States has more than 84,000 miles of coastline that includes invaluable economic, environmental, and recreational resources. Coastal areas receive about 85% of tourist-related revenues in the U.S., contributing an estimated $322 billion annually to the economy.6 Nearly one quarter of our coastline is suffering from erosion and yet the federal government has no policy to assess and address the most critically eroded shorelines.7 As the rate of coastal erosion has increased, federal expenditures to repair erosion have actually decreased, exposing lives, infrastructure, and environmental resources to the hazards associated with increasingly strong storms.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Facilities

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the largest federal provider of outdoor recreational services. More than 4,200 recreation areas are located on Corps-managed lands in 42 states. About 1,800 of these areas are operated and maintained by other entities, such as state and local governments, under leases or license agreements.

The vast majority (70%) of Corps sites are located within 50 miles of a major metropolitan area, making recreation opportunities easily accessible to many Americans. Corps facilities entertained 372 million visits in 2007, resulting in $13 billion in total trip expenses and $5 billion in durable goods, including $8 billion spent by visitors in communities around Corps lakes. This recreation contributes approximately $22.4 billion to the national economy and supports around 350,000 jobs.

The condition of Corps-managed recreation areas as well as those of its partners is a growing concern. More than 90% of Corps lake projects were constructed before 1980 and more than 30% are at least 50 years old. Flat budgets in recent years have led to the partial or full closure of 74 recreational areas in five states. This has led to a $4.25 million loss in economic benefits to the local communities. Further, Corps recreational areas have not kept pace with changes in equipment and use patterns of today’s diverse population. New uses for Corps lakes, such as sailboarding, were never anticipated when most Corps facilities were designed.8


Parks are an important asset to the nation’s economy and environment. With limited funds available, little or no attention is currently paid to the resilience of the national park system. Balancing site security with access is taxing and often unsuccessful. A failure to protect these national treasures will strongly affect the heritage and identity of future generations. Future investments must address life-cycle maintenance, security, risk management, and system robustness.


Parks serve many roles in the lives of Americans, providing recreation opportunities, jobs, and economic development as well as increased property values for adjacent private properties. Yet funding sources are inconsistent, and park facilities in many areas suffer from neglect—especially in times of tight budgets—even as their popularity and demand soars. Our federally funded national parks are not immune to these problems, suffering from deferred maintenance despite the rising numbers of visitors. At the state and local level, dedicated sources of revenue for parks and open spaces need to be identified to ensure quality facilities for future generations. The National Park System should continue its Centennial Initiative to increase investment in park improvements leading up to the 100th anniversary in 2016. In addition, parks at all levels will benefit from a comprehensive assessment of usage and needs by an independent commission.


  1. National Association of State Park Directors, 2008 Annual Information Exchange: for the period covering 1 July 2006–30 June 2007, July 2008
  2. National Park Service, Land and Water Conservation Fund, 2007 Annual Report
  3. The Trust for Public Land, Center for City Park Excellence, “Cities Getting Greener, But Not Fast Enough to Keep Up,” July 2008
  4. The Trust for Public Land, “Conservation Funding Wins Big at the Ballot” press release, November 5, 2008
  5. Department of Interior, National Park Service, “Bureau Highlights, FY 2009 Budget Justifications”
  6. Houston, James R., “The Economic Value of Beaches—A 2008 Update,” Shore & Beach: Journal of the American Shore & Beach Preservation Association
  7. American Shore & Beach Preservation Association
  8. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Natural Resources Management
  9. The Trust for Public Land website, “Success Stories” series,
  10. Center for City Park Excellence, The Trust for Public Land, “How Much Value Does the City of Philadelphia Receive from its Park and Recreation System?”, June 2008

Other Resources:

  • Resources for the Future, The Policy Path to the Great Outdoors: A History of the Outdoor Recreation Review Commissions, October 2008
  • Outdoor Industry Foundation, “The Active Outdoor Recreation Economy,” Fall 2006
  • U.S. Census Bureau, Special District Governments by Function and State: 2002
  • Department of Agriculture, “FY 2009 Budget Request,” Natural Resources and Environment, Forest Service
  • National Park Service, Summary of Park Centennial Strategies, August 2007
  • National Park Service, The Future of America’s National Parks, May 2007
  • Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Ocean Service, Coastal Trends Report Series, Population Trends Along the Coastal United States: 1980–2008, September 2004
  • Natural Resources Management Division, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Washington, D.C.
  • Chris Walker, “The Public Value of Urban Parks,” part of the Beyond Recreation: A Broader View of Urban Parks series by the Urban Institute, June 2004