The Future or Extinction of our National Park System

Dr. Gil Lusk, celebrated author of National Parks: Our Living Treasure, offers a series of solutions to the urgent problems plaguing the U.S. National Parks System…

by: Dr. Gil Lusk

Learn more about the concerns facing the National Park Service and Dr. Lusk’s book on Episode 62 of Across The Margin : The Podcast!

Areas created and managed as the United States National Park Service (NPS) sites are the Nation’s Living Treasures, so why are Congress and the Executive Branch treating them like old used cars? A few dings, a little rust, some knocks, oil leaks — no problem. The NPS has an annual budget of just over $2 billion dollars and manages close to 483 sites around the United States, Puerto Rico, and other U.S. Territories. Congress and Executive Branches over the past thirty years have allowed critical repairs and upkeep of these treasures to go largely unfunded, with a current documented backlog of some $12 billion dollars, six times the annual budget for the agency. Currently, the only thing being done is adding more parks to an already strained system, confounding the issue.

The United States Federal Government needs to consider closing a number of their parks, shift funds to those parks most in need, and increase the staff at the parks that are critical in terms of rehabilitation and restoration. Action needs to be taken to prioritize our parks from one to four hundred and eighty-three, from the most at risk to the area’s most suitable for closure and caretaker status. For thirty years, park employees have been asked to do more with less, to the point that they now depend on 220,000 volunteers just to meet important public service needs. Volunteers help the parks in the very best of ways, but they cannot address infrastructure needs, failing structures, and the proper utilization of limited funds and resources. 

The beautiful pictorial images of the United States’ National Parks tell a story of the parks in grand condition with few problems. But no one takes pictures of poorly maintained historic structures, long lines for restrooms, overflowing parking areas, and failing trails. The Parks Service has voiced concern but it lacks scientific, social and historical research programs and knowledge in support of our parks and the delicate ecosystems, archaeological sites, and historic structures found therein.

The future of the National Park Service hangs on decisions badly needed, but failing to be made. A review of the past 103 years of the NPS’s history is needed. Why have parks arrived at this place of concern they are now in? These are vulnerable treasures that have become subject to misuse, poor funding, failing infrastructure, and a complete lack of proper proactive planning to correct the present situation and prevent future deterioration of the treasures managed. There are ways to correct the current situation and specific, concrete actions to be taken at multiple levels but most importantly, a process must be put in place that will allow for thinking outside the box of Congress and political appointees.  

It begins, I believe, with the establishment of a non-political National Commission, carefully selected from groups actively involved in working with the National Parks. This group would be charged with evaluating and reviewing the current situation and propose much-needed actions, to cure the present while preserving a future based on the NPS Mission.  

One task, as a necessary holding action while the Commission works, is to rank every National Park site in terms of its national significance, endangerment, and use. Areas below a certain level would be placed in caretaker status, with most of their funds and staff reassigned to parks with significant problems and needs – all of this to be determined by the National Commission. This action represents only one method to achieve protection where needed and there are other ways to redistribute funds as well, or for Congress to simply address the shortfalls and properly fund the parks while the Commission works.

Another concern of the Commission would be how the NPS is funded, managed, and organized, and whether change is needed to assure protection of the National Parks. It would seek ways, once parks were prioritized and funds shifted, to overcome and remove the $12 billion dollar backlog of necessary funds for the parks, with parks in care-taker status not reactivated until the backlog is addressed. Perhaps another Mission 66 program, with a ten year window to resolve the backlog one year at a time, might be considered in combination with other actions.

Further consideration must be given regarding how parks are added to the system and the evaluation process used. The questions that must be asked are: How many National Park areas are appropriate? How many parks can be supported so that they are all properly staffed and cared for? What areas, now in the system, should be reevaluated for compliance with new standards? In the future, should sensitive parks or resources be permitted to have carrying capacities as visitation numbers increase and should certain forms of access be limited? 

Parks should have the authority to collect fees and retain those fees within that specific park. The National Park System should not be an executive agency under the direction of Congress and political appointees at the Department of the Interior. Perhaps something like the Smithsonian Institution, considered unique in the Federal establishment, would be a better example of how the National Park System is managed. The Smithsonian is not an executive branch agency and does not exercise regulatory powers, except over its own buildings and grounds. 

It must be asked if National Treasures can be appropriately managed and protected from political interference and decision making by the Congress and political appointees. It is time to consider new ways and means for protecting and securing the future of our National Park System and for Congress to recognize that change is needed.

There can be no illusion that the processes needed can be accomplished quickly and without upset, but the pretense that all is well with the National Parks and change is not needed will lead to a future of reactive decisions assuring the demise and loss of those values so loved by the American people and so needed by the ecosystems and bioregions. Change is happening too quickly in our society and our country which permits more delay and argument over the need for restoration and recovery of our National Park System. Our Living National Treasures need your help, now. 

 

While ATM has a policy against publishing previously published work, because we care deeply about the National Parks and Dr. Gil Lusk’s message we made an exception in this case. This article was first published at the Glendale Daily Planet.

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