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A Centennial — And Uncertain Future — For America's National Parks

Linda J. Bilmes and Will Shaforth write that climate change, growing tourism, decaying infrastructure and declining federal support all jeopardize their future. (Cam Adams/Unsplash)MoreCloseclosemore
Linda J. Bilmes and Will Shaforth write that climate change, growing tourism, decaying infrastructure and declining federal support all jeopardize their future. (Cam Adams/Unsplash)

Later this month, America will celebrate the National Park Service’s 100th birthday. The national parks include 412 of the country's most distinctive places, from iconic scenery such as Yosemite and the Everglades to historic sites like Gettysburg and Little Rock High School, as well as monuments, seashores, recreation areas and wildlife habitats in every state and territory. These places are national treasures, but as any dynamic, evolving entity must, the way our country protects America’s national parks needs to adapt and change if we are to preserve these incredible assets for the next 100 years.

More than 300 million people visited the national parks last year, and we’re on pace to surpass last year’s record visitorship. According to a new study by Harvard University and Colorado State, even those who don't visit want to protect and preserve the parks. In fact, 95 percent of American households feel that protecting the national parks is "extremely important," and 85 percent say they personally benefit from the existence of these places, regardless of whether or not they actually visit.

Robust public–private partnership is critical to the future of the national parks.

However, the parks currently face multiple threats. Climate change, growing tourism, decaying infrastructure and declining federal support all jeopardize their future. Today, the National Park Service (NPS) receives $3 billion in annual funding from a combination of visitor fees and federal appropriations. This sum barely covers the agency’s basic operating costs, with little left over to perform maintenance or enhancement. Moreover, the annual budget has been shrinking as a result of congressional cutbacks: Today it is 15 percent lower than in 2001 in real terms.

Taxpayers think their parks are worth much, much more. The Harvard-Colorado State study found that Americans place a value of $92 billion on the national parks and National Park Service programs — more than 30 times the amount the government currently appropriates. Four out of five respondents said they were willing to pay higher taxes to prevent cuts to the parks and key park programs, such as education and historical stewardship.

The current $3 billion budget is inadequate to maintain and invest in an asset valued at more than $90 billion. Already, the NPS has a backlog of $12 billion in critical maintenance projects, such as repairs to trails, visitor centers, campgrounds, roads and bridges, fire prevention efforts and watershed upkeep. Even if Congress raises the annual park budget to $4 billion, that will not solve the structural deficit. In order to effectively maintain and appropriately enhance the National Park System for future generations, we need to collectively support and advocate for a new financial model.

"Americans place a value of $92 billion on the national parks and National Park Service programs -- more than 30 times the amount the government currently appropriates." (Vashishtha Jogi/Unsplash)
"Americans place a value of $92 billion on the national parks and National Park Service programs -- more than 30 times the amount the government currently appropriates." (Vashishtha Jogi/Unsplash)

A key component of an updated funding model for America’s national parks must include private philanthropy. Individuals, foundations and corporations have long played a role in how the parks are supported and enhanced. The National Park Foundation (NPF) was established by Congress for this exact purpose. Currently, as part of its Centennial Campaign for America’s National Parks, the National Park Foundation is raising $350 million to support unfunded priority projects across the National Park System.

Robust public-private partnership is critical to the future of the national parks. To date, it has funded essential education programs, historic preservation, wildlife protection and building repairs at hundreds of national parks, monuments and recreation areas. This type of support has also made possible the creation of new parks.

Congress also needs to embrace a funding model that fully reflects the perpetuity mission of the National Park Service -- to protect America’s special places “unimpaired” forever.  This could include an endowment such as those that are widely used to provide long-term financial stability to universities and museums. An endowment would leverage limited federal resources. Over time, it would grow to provide a steady income that would allow the National Park Foundation, in concert with NPS, to fund signature projects and programs throughout the park system. Such programs could include educational opportunities for young people, infrastructure restoration and rehabilitation by conservation corps, and designing innovative ways to tell the American story.

The parks belong to all of us, and we all share the responsibility of supporting them.

There is some precedent for this model in the federal government: Both the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress have charitable trusts that supplement federal funding. There is vital legislation pending before Congress that would establish such an endowment at NPF, as part of a larger bill to help sustain and support the parks over the next century. Public-private partnerships and philanthropic support of our parks are essential complements to annual appropriations, not replacements for them. The parks belong to all of us, and we all share the responsibility of supporting them.

The National Park System is one of the most beloved institutions in the nation, but we need to work together to properly support “America’s best idea,” or risk being unable to pass on a legacy 100 years in the making.

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