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Nice piece in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch this morning about the prospects for a second cross-Missouri trail.

Rock Island Trail

It’s easy to see from the Post’s map that this proposed trail would have much less traffic than the Katy. It doesn’t connect or run near major population centers, as the Katy does. So a nay-sayer might complain about the cost-to-people-served ratio.

But the role of state parks is not always to serve the largest possible number. The map also tells us that this trail would give a much more Ozarks-flavored experience than the Katy; it travels through rougher and more forested territory, and thus would appeal more to the backpack-and-tent crowd than the winery-and-B&B types. So it would have fewer hikers and bikers. So what? Is popularity the only value for a park?

Park advocates (including myself, sometimes) have become habituated to using economic arguments to justify them. But the logical trap to that argument is that people who are swayed by economic arguments can always find a more profitable use for parkland. A recent op-ed in the Columbia Daily Tribune from the head of the Conservation Federation of Missouri argued against a proposed bill in the legislature that would allow nonresident landowners to obtain free hunting licenses. His criticism focused on the cost to the Conservation Department – about $500,000 – and included a list of dire consequences if that money were lost. But seriously, $500,000 in a department whose annual budget is nearing $200 million is not much of an argument. I agree that letting nonresident landowners get free hunting licenses is a bad idea, but not just because of the cost. It’s a bad idea because it perverts the original intent of the resident landowner exception, which was to make sure that farmers and other rural residents could hunt on their own property without too many government-imposed hoops to jump through. It’s a bad idea because it opens the door to abuses, with distant landowners finding off-the-books ways to profit from those free licenses. And it’s a bad idea because it’s yet another legislative run at the independence of the Conservation Department. As with the Rock Island Trail park, the value of an independent Conservation Department can’t be measured in dollars and cents. In fact, measuring the accomplishments of government in dollars and cents is the opposite of the point. Government is not supposed to act like a business, where dollar value is the highest priority. Government is supposed to act in the public interest, broadly defined, and serving the widest variety of citizens falls into that category as far as I’m concerned.

Great parks, like great schools and great highways, are valuable on their own merits, not on what they yield economically. And the proposed Rock Island Trail would be a great park.