Economic vs. Scientific Value: The Case of National Parks


Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona.

There is an interesting piece in today's New York Times about the expansion of Petrified Forest National Park in north-eastern Arizona.  The park, which began its life as a National Monument under Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, has now been enriched with over 25,000 acres of land formerly belonging to a private ranch.

Negotiations between the Dpt. of the Interior and the owner of this land had been stalled for over a decade.  The reason is that the two parties could not agree to a price.  The ranch's owner, Marvin Hatch, demanded $500 per acre, which would have amounted to over $13 million in total.  When the government refused, Hatch turned the land -- which is especially prized for the abundant dinosaur fossil it contains -- into a private theme park.  Calling it International Petrified Forest, Hatch built a giant concrete dinosaur along I-40 to attract visitors and charge them an entrance fee.  

International Petrified Forest, photo by Dean Jeffrey
Hatch has since passed away, and his sons agreed to sell the ranch-land at the reduced price of $300 per acre. In part, they appear to have been motivated by the fact that International Petrified Forest never really took off as a tourist destination.  The Times goes on to describe the immense scientific value of the new acquisition, citing, among other things, the discovery of Gertie, a diminutive ancestor of the Cretaceous monster Tyrannosaurus rex.

The Times also quotes unnamed scientists as stating that the "value of the land in terms of research ... is impossible to measure."  This is an interesting thing to say in an article that is primarily about how the United States Government did exactly that: negotiate a fair price for the land.

Historians of American conservation policy will recognize a further, deep irony in this story.  The legislation that first made it possible for the US Executive to set certain areas aside for conservation as a National Monument was explicitly enacted to remove these sites from the free market.  Originally passed in 1906, the Antiquities Act was drafted by scientists in an effort to ban commercial collectors (or "pot hunters" as they tended to be called) from the Mesa Verde Cliff Dwellings in Colorado.

The Antiquities Act was designed only to protect sites of archeological and historical interest from capitalism.  But it's language was extremely vague, stating the President could declare any "historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments."  Moreover, the act made it illegal for anyone to "appropriate, excavate, injure, or destroy any historic or prehistoric ruin or monument, or any object of antiquity, situated on lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States."

A few years later, in 1909, vagueness of the Act's language -- which could be construed to include natural historical treasures in addition to archeological ones -- prompted a land agent in Utah to deny a mineral claim by Earl Douglass on behalf of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.  Douglass filed the claim in an attempt to secure ownership of a particularly rich dinosaur quarry, hoping to keep it from falling into the hands of private collectors or rival museums.

Earl Douglass at Dinosaur National Monument

When the Carnegie Museum's director, William J. Holland, learned that Douglass' mineral claim had been denied, he was furious.  Holland had a personal hand in drafting the law, and never dreamed that it could be invoked to do anything but protect the interests of museums such as his own.  He immediately got in touch with the Secretary of the Interior, and an awkward compromise was worked out in which Woodrow Wilson declared Douglass' dinosaur quarry to be a National Monument.  This was not entirely satisfactory, because it meant the Carnegie Museum might have to allow rival museums like the Smithsonian to dig for dinosaurs there.  But at least it would keep commercial fossil dealers off of the site.

What is the upshot of all this?

I think the history of the Antiquities Act points to the fact that sites of historic and scientific interest cannot really be removed from the market.  Scientists and governments are economic players too! Legislation such as the Antiquities Act has often been used as a mechanism by which certain players assert their dominance over others in the course of an economic negotiation.  William J. Holland was not offended by the notion that a monetary value might be placed on Douglass' dinosaur quarry.  What bothered him was the thought that his museum might not be able to maintain control over the site.

So what do we mean when we declare a site to be immeasurable scientific or historical value?  The usual way to interpret such language is that we think there is something profane about putting a cash value on historic landmarks or scientific discoveries.  The point that I want to make is that this idea -- the idea that objects of scientific significance cannot be assigned a cash value -- has a particular history. Moreover, we should recognize that it serves the interests of scientists who understandably want to exercise control over those objects.

To forestall any misunderstandings, let me clarify one thing: I am not in favor of having National Parks or Monuments given over to private ownership.  Far from it!  I do think they represent a common heritage, and thus ought to be treated as a public good to be kept in the public domain.  So I am the first to support the creation of public parks, national monuments, and so on.  But just because they ought to belong to everyone does not mean they are not worth something.  I think they are worth a great deal, and ought to belong to us all!


Thanks for showcasing Douglass's story here, Lukas, and for leading us to think about the problems of valuation.

Land conservation came hand-in-hand with "life conservation" too. Irving Fisher led a major commission to look into ways to prolong Americans lives and limit preventable disease. A big part of Fisher's argument---he was an economist, after all---involved putting dollar values on those lives. The public health movement of the early twentieth century relied heavily on such valuations to keep themselves in business, so to speak.

Thanks for this interesting comment, Dan. I would also add the connection to recent debates about healthcare. As the ability of modern medicine to prolong life continues has improved, we are already seeing a situation in which the limiting factor to keeping someone alive becomes cost. But how much is an individual life worth?

There is also the point that in order to insure everyone, you must perforce impose limits on care.

These are questions of public policy and, perhaps, ethics. But we can ask a historical question too: why does it come so naturally to us to evaluate the value of things like human lives, open land, biodiversity, etc., in terms of dollars and cents? Why are we so comfortable talking about them in a language designed to handle economic commodities?

Great post. I'm wrestling myself with questions about the valuation of tropical nature and biodiversity. The early twentieth century does seem to be a key point in these movements to assign monetary value to stand in for values that are not inherently monetary. (And interestingly "priceless" in these cases seems to mean, not without price, but a price far higher than the market alone would assign it.) It definitely appears to be a strategy of scientists and conservationists when other rhetorics using other values alone fail.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

back to top