How Valuable are National Parks? Evidence from a Proposed National Park Expansion in Alaska


  • Lindsay B. Johnson
  • Michael S. Spanbauer Postdoctoral Research Associate, Mississippi State University
  • Patrick Button Assistant Professor, Tulane University, Department of Economics



Alaska, contingent valuation, national parks, nature conservation, oil spills, passive use value, willingness-to-pay


When balancing environmental preservation and economic development, it is critical to evaluate how taxpayers value national park land and for what they are valuing it. One key component of this evaluation is to calculate a “passive use value,” or the willingness to pay (WTP), for protection of land that may never directly be used, and to determine what benefits of land protection motivate this passive use value. 

We estimated the WTP for a 5% expansion of Denali National Park in Alaska (an expansion of 325,340 acres) using a questionnaire and the contingent valuation method. The survey first educated respondents on Alaskan geography, the current status of protected land and wildlife in Alaska, and common arguments for and against National Park expansion. The survey then described a proposal to expand the Denali National Park and asked a series of questions designed to bound the respondents WTP. Finally, the survey asked respondents to answer questions about what motivated their support or disapproval for the program.

Multiple methodologies were used to estimate the national average WTP, resulting in a WTP range of a single payment of $77 to $409. This is estimated to be a total WTP of $15.1 billion to $79.3 billion for all individuals aged 18 to 64 in the United States, or $363.1 million to $1.91 billion per year in 2017 dollars. Respondents to the survey indicated that their support is driven primarily by increased protection from oil spills (85.8% deemed this very important or important), by increasing and protecting Alaska's biodiversity (84.3%), and preserving Alaska's beauty (84.2%). 

These results can help inform recent, current, and future debates about land use. President Obama significantly expanded land protections, while President Trump is continuing to scale back land protections, including opening up untouched land in Alaska in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling. These results suggest that there are significant passive use values that should be considered when deciding whether to expand or reduce protection of land. Given that passive use values are significant, this suggests that the economic benefits must be large to tip a cost-benefit analysis in favor of reduced land protections. 

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