There’s a park in my neighborhood that features woods, a pond, a picnic shelter and both paved and dirt pathways. Most days, only a few dozen people use it. Is it worth preserving in its current state?
It’s not a moot question. A city official called the park “underutilized” and hinted at development.
The question has also arisen in a U.S. Senator’s critique of national parks. Senator Thomas Coburn of Oklahoma named Isle Royale National Park (which really should belong to Minnesota!) a “wasteful” expenditure because it attracted only 16,746 visitors in 2012. Never mind that it is one of the most spectacular jewels in the national park system.
Like most Americans, I’ve not been to Isle Royale. But I value it. Its moose and wolf populations – the subject of a famous, long-running scientific study – topography, ecology, geology and human history distinguish it from all other national parks. And these resources provide a one-of-a-kind visitor experience.
My neighborhood park doesn’t have much in common with Isle Royale. But it could be subject to the same cost-benefit equation. And in a heavily populated suburban area, it’s possible to make a case that a park should be enjoyed by more people – and developed.
On the other hand, not all parks have to be intensely “utilized” to justify their existence. Whether it’s Isle Royale or an island of green in the cement sea of suburbia, there is a place for quiet nature. My neighborhood park is habitat for everything from turtles to egrets. There’s a place for that, too, just as there’s a place for ball diamonds and water parks.
Maybe we should all take a breath when thinking of condemning parks that provide a respite from everyday stress. That’s the kind of deep breath an “underutilized” park can provide.