National parks save $145bn a year in health services
A team of Griffith University researchers has estimated that national parks worldwide are worth about $8.7 trillion a year in the improved mental health of their visitors.
Using quality-adjusted life years, the researchers estimated the economic value of national parks using data collected from a representative sample of the Australian population in the states of Queensland and Victoria (19,674). These data were used to estimate the value for the whole of Australia and the globe, with a direct link found between visits to protected areas and individual mental health.
Griffith ecologists, psychologists and economists led the research, which has been published in the journal Nature Communications.
For Australia, the team estimated the annual health services value of Australia’s national parks was around $145 billion a year.
“The article suggests several ways to calculate health services value, and these numbers are from just one of those methods — now we need to extend that research to other methods and other countries,” Griffith’s Professor Ralf Buckley said.
“Protected areas are there for conservation, which gives us a livable planet and underpins our entire economy, but conservation is not very powerful politically. People and politicians pay more attention to health, because it affects them personally.
“This value already exists, it just was not recognised. People already visit parks to recover from stress. In healthcare terms, it’s patient-funded therapy. Without parks, costs of poor mental health in Australia would rise by $145 billion a year.”
The health-related benefits of spending time in nature are thought to include improved attention, cognition, sleep and stress recovery, but the economic value of national parks is in terms of their impact on the mental health of their visitors has been previously unknown.
Currently, the costs of poor mental health in Australia amount to approximately 10% of GDP, and the researchers’ estimates indicate that these costs could be 7.5% higher without protected areas such as national parks.
The economic costs of poor mental health include treatment, care and reduced workplace productivity, which affect individuals, families, employers, insurers and taxpayers.
“The next step will be to test how mental health benefits depend on individual personalities and on particular aspects of park visits,” Griffith’s Dr Ali Chauvenet said.
“It’s possible that park visits could then become a routine part of the healthcare system, prescribed by doctors and funded by insurers.
“From a park management perspective, it means that maximum economic return to government treasuries may be from investing in low-key hiking tracks, lookouts and other visitor facilities, to attract people to visit with their children as often as possible.”
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