Welcome to “National Parks Monopoly”

Glacier National Park costs $400. Joshua Tree costs $60.

Welcome to “National Parks Monopoly”

There are a lot of strange branding decisions, but the board game National Parks Monopoly is one of the oddest. Monopolies, of course, are antithetical to the mission of the National Park system, which is to make America’s most ecologically unique, historical, iconic landscapes accessible to everyone. Americans overwhelmingly support the parks, whether or not they visit them. So is National Parks Monopoly a poorly thought-out commodity? Or does it provide something to be learned about land ownership, nature, and nationalism in North America? Probably some of both.

Figure 1. National Parks Monopoly

The board game Monopoly is an American classic. While time consuming, it is fun. And fun matters a lot.

Created in 1903 by Lizzie Magie, it was originally dubbed The Landlord's Game and was meant to demonstrate the dangers of monopolies. The experimental community of Arden, Delaware, whose members advocated for a classless society and collective ownership, found great joy in passing around Magie’s original, handmade version of the game.

One of the original corner quadrants was named Mother Earth.

In 1910, Scott Nearing, an economics professor at Wharton College who had moved to Arden in 1905, was introduced to the game and used it as an educational tool in his economics courses, which unnerved administrators. He dubbed it the Anti-Landlord Game.

Parker Brothers, who bought the patent from Magie, was originally hesitant to market the game commercially due to its complexity and potentially disruptiveness of founding American values. But the game was commercially viable and took on a life of its own, namely a fascinating story that is beyond the scope of this project and (!) includes serving as a means of smuggling weapons to prisoners of war in World War II.

National Parks Monopoly was first released in 1998. Hasbro (which purchased Parker Brothers) has taken full advantage of Monopoly’s popularity, licensing a number of themes such as the Avengers, Harley Davidson, Coca Cola, and the Bible. If it sells, no theme seems off limits. Nothing cannot be monopolized.

This game might be a burst of capitalism throwing spaghetti at a wall and seeing what sticks. But when we pause, perhaps National Parks Monopoly challenges us to ask, who has a monopoly on public lands? And why is it a theme for a board game?

To begin, what is, in theory, less monopolistic than the national parks? As Wallace Stegner stated, "National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst."

The history, of course, is more complex, colonial, and tragic. Parks perceived as untouched by humans were in fact artifacts of sensitive cultivation, so successful that preservationists and bureaucrats could not fathom they had been stewarded. Frequently, native people living in locations deemed worthy of park status were characterized as enemies of conservation.

In Yosemite, the Ahwahnechee were forcibly ejected from their land in Yosemite Valley then rehired to act out traditional practices for appreciation by tourists. The park’s most lavish hotel, The Ahwahnee, bears their namesake.

With the establishment of Grand Canyon National Park, the Havasupai were confined to 519 acres of land at the bottom of the canyon, in spite of traditionally heading towards the rim in the winter. “The creation of Grand Canyon National Park was actually some of the darkest days for the Havasupai people”, stated Havasupai Councilwoman Ophelia Watahomigie-Corliss. “The tragic history of forced relocation of native tribes in the establishment of the parks directly contradicts their characterization as “absolutely democratic.”

The initial park acquisitions weren’t difficult for the government. Most land was considered federal, though east of the 100th meridian historical monuments and inholdings complicated the scenario. While originally managed by either the Department of the Interior, the Department of War, or the Forest Service, in 1933 the parks were consolidated under the National Park Service, circa 1916.

All U.S. taxpayers pay into the federal park budget via taxes, as entrance fees are insufficient to pay for maintenance and upkeep. Another important source of revenue is the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is a mitigation strategy that siphons money from extractive industries into the national parks in exchange for the industries to do environmental damage elsewhere. Before the Great American Outdoors Act of 2000, much of this funding was diverted to other federal projects, but with its passage, parks began to get the $900 million a year they were originally allocated but failed to receive. A critical part of this funding is used to purchase inholdings, or land privately owned and grandfathered in when the park was established.

Early on in the effort to acquire the parks and make them financially solvent, simply being scenic wasn’t sufficient. Looking to other nations, park advocates recognized that they were losing tourist dollars to international travelers. The “See America First” campaign was born in an effort to exalt America’s landscapes as on-par with those of Europe. It was through the combination of scenery, economic viability, and public accessibility that preservationists were able to make park dreams into reality. They were seen as a way to preserve exceptional landscapes and promote America’s history and exceptionalism. On National Parks monopoly bills, the president’s face has been replaced with nationalist icons managed by the National Park Service, such as the Statue of Liberty, the Washington Monument, and the White House.

What veers into the technical territory of a monopoly are the concessions within the parks. Concessionaires provide recreational opportunities, food, and lodging to visitors. The concession system has been widely critiqued, in part because of the Park Service’s “monopolistic” assignment of contracts and low financial return.

“Imagine a monopoly game played with real money, where your opponent buys every property on the board at cut-rate prices and then places hotels on all of them before a single roll of the dice has occurred. You'd say: ‘The game's a joke. I'm not playing.’ Unfortunately, the National Park Service has been running a rigged monopoly game in our national parks – giving away lucrative monopolies to private concessioners who make huge profits by providing food, lodging and gift shop services to park visitors, but pay only a pittance back to the taxpayers.”

Concessionaires are given lifelong contracts, with the opportunity to match competing prices and renew their contracts when they expire. Critics argue that concessionaires have every reason to benefit by creating consumer demand for souvenirs and trinkets while the parks themselves fall into disrepair. A fair bidding process, as well as limitations imposed by the parks themselves as to what types of concessionaires are truly necessary, would help funnel direct funding toward infrastructure and restoration.

One key part of Monopoly game strategy is the acquisition of properties. The properties in the original game of Monopoly are named after streets in Atlantic City; the National Parks version replaces street names with national parks. There are currently 63 national parks in the United States, 22 of which are included in National Parks Monopoly. Those built into the game are largely concentrated in the American West, which, at a glance, is consistent with the location of national parks more generally. That said, Hawaii in particular is underrepresented (Fig. 2).

Figure 2.

The properties are arranged around the board, from lowest to highest cost, and as players land on them (using pewter tokens of a ranger hat, a hiking shoe, and a dog, despite strict regulations on dogs in national parks) they can develop the parks using tents and cabins (instead of the Monopoly standard houses and hotels). The Chance cards feature historic battlefields and the Community Chest cards feature historic sites, all managed by the National Park Service.

In game world (follow me here)- we are buying and developing national parks. What determines their “on the board” cost?

The park properties range in cost from $60 to $400. A number of criteria could result in the different economic valuation of national parks. In the spirit of exploration, basic correlation analysis was conducted to determine predictors of the financial value of buying each park, in National Park Monopoly. The results are surprisingly simple.

Are the most expensive parks in National Parks Monopoly the most visited? No. The most visited parks, historic sites, and recreation areas, tend to be near urban areas. Thus this proportionally includes more parks east of the 100th meridian than does the game.

Additionally, park size, in terms of square acreage, does not meaningfully correlate with cost. So what is the strongest predictor?

The strongest predictor of park value (beginning with Cuyahoga and Joshua Tree at $60, and topping out at Glacier at $400) is age (correlation -0.85), with the oldest parks overwhelmingly being deemed most valuable by the game’s creators. Just as these parks were the most iconic landscapes to early preservationists, their historical status (rather than current value to visitors) overwhelmingly determine their price on the board game.

National parks are places in and of themselves, meaningful (or made meaningful) enough to deserve visitation, access, economic solicitation, and commodification by Hasbro. They are also ultimately artificial, human created entities that often eclipse their relationship with surrounding areas, as well as the ultimate human constructedness of their existence.

“First and foremost, ecology teaches us that we cannot simply draw political boundaries around national parks and look after them as if they were separate from everything else. National parks are intimately connected to places and people beyond their borders, and park managers now understand that they can no longer manage the national parks in isolation.”

To paraphrase William Cronon, wilderness areas are places with 300-page management manuals.

“Parks are islands of hope,” William Brown said. They are national symbols that perform critical ecological and economic roles. But as the sheer existence of National Parks Monopoly demonstrates, our national parks are nothing if not commodified in a number of contradictory ways. Is National Parks Monopoly any more ironic than the monopoly by concessionaires and the subsequent financial private gain? What about the Park Service’s original tension between access and preservation? Once nudged, the questions compound.

Perhaps National Parks Monopoly is the most logical outcome of a nation in which national parks have been thoroughly commodified economically, embedded in nationalism and attempted to define a uniquely American history, with trees and rocks and animals as the central, and sometimes sub-par, attractions.

When my daughters and I first played National Parks Monopoly, it was….fun? Nothing seemed odd about the monopolization of our National Parks. I guess I prefer my daughters to learn more about the National Parks than the street names of Atlantic City.

But at the end of the day, there is nothing inconsistent with National Park Monopoly and US national identity. Everything about the game, financial or not, reifies the way in which we value the oldest, most cathedral-like places that we have erased people from. They have never been uninhabited. It’s an inaccurate, dated idea of nature that we somehow continue to worship. National Parks puts symbology above place, valuing history over ecological value.

As a country, we can make a lot of money off National Parks, of course not through National Park Monopoly. But National Parks are invaluable. And the degree to which we reinforce romanticized, colonial, pristine ideas of nature through seemingly-innocuous commodities?

Maybe let’s stop.