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Solving the US National Park Service’s funding crisis

Record visitation numbers are not enough to save the US National Park Service from a multibillion-dollar funding crisis

Saint Mary's Lake, Glacier National Park. The US National Park Service is currently undergoing a funding crisis 

On August 25, the US National Park Service (NPS) will celebrate a centenary of environmental stewardship and safeguarding of the US’ most prized natural assets. To mark the momentous occasion, the National Park Foundation and NPS together kick-started the Find Your Park movement, which aimed to restore public interest in what historian Wallace Stegner called “America’s best idea” and pay tribute to some of nature’s most spectacular locales.

As it was put by filmmakers Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan in their landmark 2009 documentary, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, “[National Parks] are more than a collection of rocks and trees and inspirational scenes from nature. They embody something less tangible, yet equally enduring – an idea, born in the United States nearly a century after its creation, as uniquely American as the Declaration of Independence and just as radical”.

However, as deserving as the celebrations are, they conceal a deeper truth about the state of the NPS and the US’ national parks generally. And while the management of more than 400 parks – a total network of over 340,000sq km of land – is an achievement in itself, the agency is teetering on the brink of a crisis.

National parks are among America’s most prized attractions: not only do they promise an enviable return on investment, but they are a valuable community service

Infrastructural challenges
In the lead-up to the centennial celebrations, it came to light that the NPS was tending to a backlog of repair and maintenance works to the tune of $11.5bn – five times higher than the agency’s latest budget from Congress. Worse is that the shortfall represents a $440m premium on the previous year, and around half is priced according to simple upgrades for roads and structures that have gone without any attendance for years.

“Our 400 national parks, trails, and recreation areas are being enjoyed in record numbers, with  307 million visits last year alone”, Elizabeth Ouzts, Communications Director at Environment America, told Business Destinations. “But the backlog of maintenance needs – approaching $12bn – is also at record levels. And massive funding cuts over the last decade have left our parks and other public lands understaffed and struggling to keep up with day-to-day operations.”

It’s worth noting, however, that visitation measured on a per capita basis has actually been declining since the late 1980s. This is even more interesting considering the NPS has expanded significantly since then in terms of the number of national park units it maintains.

The agency itself has also slipped down the rankings in the official Best Places to Work in the Federal Government survey, and while most agencies witnessed increased job satisfaction and commitment, those working at the NPS harbour concerns to do with senior leadership, teamwork and workplace diversity. Ouzts herself emphasised that the national parks are “treasured natural areas set aside for all the public to enjoy, today and in the future; not sold to special interests for short term gain”. Nonetheless, she concedes the general public is quite different from what it was 100 years ago. “At the same time, a narrow set of moneyed interests and their allies in Congress are trying to sell off lands and stop the creation of new parks. So we’ve got to make sure our parks’ visitors – and advocates – are just as diverse as the country is today, otherwise we risk losing them altogether.”

Visitors to and employees at the parks are all edging closer to retirement. The number of visitors under the age of 15 has fallen by half in the past decade, and half the employees in park service leadership roles are set to retire before the year’s up. With as many as 75 percent of NPS employees aged 40 or above – and only seven percent aged 29 or younger – there is currently only one park ranger for every 100,000 visitors.

“So the maintenance backlog is a major challenge”, Shawn Regan, Research Fellow at the Property and Environment Research Centre, told Business Destinations. “The infrastructure necessary to support park visitors, such as the roads, trails, wastewater systems and park facilities, are in rough shape, and it’s getting worse each year.” The major challenge, Regan explained, will be finding a solution that doesn’t just rely on Congress for appropriations. “With the backlog as large as it is, it’s just not practical to rely on Congress to solve the problem. And in fact, Congress often makes the problem worse by continually adding new units to the NPS but neglecting to adequately fund the upkeep of existing national parks.”

The Grand Canyon is one of the National Park Service's most popular sites, attracting 4.5 million people a year
The Grand Canyon is one of the National Park Service’s most popular sites, attracting 4.5 million people a year

The situation is somewhat paradoxical given the level of popular admiration for the NPS’ mission to “preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education and inspiration of this and future generations”. In a recent Gallup poll, respondents considered ‘a commitment to national parks and open space’ to be the federal government’s second most important function in a list of 19.

The figures also appear to confirm that the parks system is a top performer in terms of returns. According to the National Parks Conservation Authority, in 2014 the NPS received upwards of 292 million recreational visits, generated $30bn in economic activity and supported 277,000 private sector jobs, making it clear national parks are among America’s most prized attractions: not only do they promise an enviable return on investment, but they are also a valuable community service. Without them, a great many conservation programmes would be non-existent, and the country’s postcard picture sites – of which there are countless – would be no more.

However, while each dollar invested in the NPS returns approximately $10 in economic activity, the agency still lacks the resources needed to fulfil its most basic of functions.

A new demographic
The situation facing the NPS is well known, yet the reasons for it are little understood. Speaking to CNN, former Yosemite park ranger Bob Roney suggested younger generations are perhaps too “plugged-in” to appreciate the “unpluggedness” of the US’ national parks. “I started in the 60s and 70s – the hippie generation”, he said. “People were wanting to get back to the land. I don’t see that as much today… People want modern conveniences. Young people are more city-oriented and tend not to be wild-lands-oriented.” However, this outlook – while common – is perhaps a little short-sighted, and certainly too simplistic, to explain in full the agency’s wide-ranging challenges.

The Junior Rangers programme, for example, is one area in which the NPS is looking to boost participation among the youth segment. With more than 200 groups in place, last year more than 800,000 children were sworn in as Junior Rangers, receiving a certificate and a badge to commemorate the occasion. Unfortunately, the fact of the matter stands that the agency is not necessarily short of applicants, but short of resources: as big an issue as the demographic challenge is, the crux of the matter lies not in attracting talent, but in securing additional funding.

To date, approximately 10 percent of the NPS’ funding comes from its visitors, while the rest comes from Congress. “If the NPS is going to tackle its maintenance backlog, it’s going to need to find ways to be more self-sufficient, as most national parks were when the agency was first created”, said Regan. “And one practical way to do that is to look to the people who actually use and visit national parks.”

Across the country, seasonal staffing and educational programmes have suffered cuts, while less-visited sections of the parks have faced closures. Then-President George W Bush himself instructed park superintendents to make cuts in “areas that won’t cause public or political controversy”. Spiralling construction costs have exacerbated the issue of funding, and more expensive facilities risk worsening beyond repair if they are allowed to deteriorate further.

“As we invite more Americans to discover the special places in the National Park System during our centennial celebration, we need to have facilities that can accommodate them and provide the best possible visitor experience”, said the agency’s Director, Jonathan Jarvis, in a press release. A failure to support the system’s most basic maintenance requirements could, in theory, erode the agency’s assets to irreparable levels and compromise some of the US’ most important natural sites.

The challenge lies in keeping corporate influence at bay, and the NPS has a fine line to tread between private support and creeping commercialisation

“The roots of the National Park Service lie in the parks’ majestic, often isolated natural wonders and in places that exemplify America’s cultural heritage”, according to the NPS’ Financial Year 2016 Budget Justifications report. “But parks and public lands now extend to places difficult to imagine 100 years ago – into urban centres, across rural landscapes, deep within oceans, and across night skies.” However, assuming national parks are allowed to fall further into disrepair in the coming years, it is conceivable we will see a trademark American institution succumb to the lure of commercialisation.

Parks rebranded
For the time being, at least, evidence of commercialisation in national parks is not all that widespread, although there are indications of corporate encroachment here and there. The sites may be strapped for cash, but the prospect of a moneyed corporation bankrolling a national park is enough to unsettle the average American visitor. For its first 100 years of service, the NPS has relied almost entirely on federal funding paired with philanthropic donations. However, as it heads into its second century, we could be about to see the agency open its doors to corporate influence.

Already the NPS has agreed to receive corporate donations of a certain size with “unobtrusive recognition”, according to The Washington Post, a move that has some critics concerned that corporations could wield unwarranted influence in the agency’s affairs. In 2010, when Grand Canyon National Park officials entered into the final stages of a ban on the sale of disposable water bottles, a sudden U-turn prompted many to express their concerns about the agency’s allegiances. When the truth emerged that Coca-Cola, a major donor to the National Park Foundation and owner of Dasani Purified Water, had convinced NPS Director Jon Jarvis to shelve the plans – if only for a short while – critics were quick to cry foul.

The same could be said of a $2.5m partnership with Anheuser-Bush, through which the brewing company set up a string of concerts based in national parks and arranged for park landmarks to appear on cans of Budweiser. Some have even contested the pairing on contractual grounds, given the language in the agency’s Director’s Order 21 states it “is NPS policy to decline direct donations from a company which holds or is seeking a concessions contract or which would identify the NPS with alcohol or tobacco products”.

Despite the criticisms, it’s not all that controversial to suggest there could be a place for corporate funding in the NPS’ future. The criticisms pertain mostly to the fear that corporations – particularly non-American firms – could exercise undue influence over decisions that directly affect the NPS and its jurisdiction. The challenge lies in keeping corporate influence at bay, and the NPS has a fine line to tread between private support and creeping commercialisation.

Yosemite National Park is known for its giant sequoia trees and dramatic waterfalls
Yosemite National Park is known for its giant sequoia trees and dramatic waterfalls

Certainly, there is a place in the parks system for philanthropy, and it’s to be expected that any sizeable donation is rewarded with a plaque or prominent display. Less desirable is the prospect of corporate donors being allowed to buy the rights to build and operate buildings – a potential shift in strategy that park officials say is vital if they are to address the $11.5bn backlog in maintenance projects. Critics argue that corporations could muscle in on the opportunity to brandish their slogan on every conceivable ad space, moulding natural wonders to their own image. Under the terms of this new policy, they say, park facilities and services could fall under the control of corporate behemoths desperate to accrue the brand points associated with any investment in America’s prize national assets.

Signs of recovery
Undue influence is a concern, and for good reason, although there are instances of corporations putting their skills and expertise to good effect: in Yellowstone National Park, Toyota and ConocoPhillips have fronted funds for a variety of causes, including the restoration of fisheries and trails, and the reintroduction of wolves to the area.

More recently, a new pilot programme led by Subaru in Yosemite, Grand Teton and Denali promises to pursue zero-landfill alternatives and reduce waste. Building on the carmaker’s existing support for the Find Your Park initiative, the partnership could eliminate the need for wasteful disposal methods and improve the reduction, reuse, recycling and composting of waste. In a National Parks Conservation Association press release, Subaru of America’s President and COO Thomas Doll said: “We are delighted to be able to share Subaru’s expertise with our national parks. Subaru owners are passionate national park visitors and we are very pleased that we can make a positive contribution to a resource we all treasure.”

Provided Subaru’s influence doesn’t run too deep, the partnership could well prove that corporate sponsorship, done right, can have a positive effect on the NPS. For the time being at least, proposals to bring down the barriers to corporate sponsorship are merely in the pipeline, with supporters on the one side welcoming the financial pick-me-up and critics on the other concerned that corporate interference could compromise these landscapes.

It hardly seems fair that an agency as financially successful as the NPS should have to stomach interference from corporate parties. However, with the funding crisis fast approaching unmanageable extremes, it’s conceivable – if not probable – that commercialisation could have a bigger a part to play in the system’s future.

The National Park Service’s key sites

At almost 3,500sq miles, Yellowstone is the country’s flagship national park, playing host to a multitude of natural wonders including geysers, lakes, canyons and mountain ranges. Yellowstone is of especial significance for the fact that it is widely held to be the world’s first national park, with its establishment dating back to the latter part of the 19th century.

Grand Canyon
One of the NPS’ most famous sites, more than 4.5 million people visit the Grand Canyon every year. The cavernous area stretches 277 river miles and, at its deepest, runs a mile down. The site was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979 in recognition of its vast national significance, with its Colorado River gorge also considered one of the world’s seven natural wonders.

Bryce Canyon
While not as lush as Yellowstone or Yosemite, Bryce Canyon is not actually a canyon but a collection of natural amphitheatres. The area is best known for its red-orange-pink hoodoos, or spire-shaped rock formations, which were formed long ago – more precisely, 70 million years ago – by a combination of frost weathering and steam erosion.

At a lesser 1,200sq miles, Yosemite cannot quite match Yellowstone for size, yet what it lacks in size it makes up for in drama: its waterfalls, cliffs and giant sequoia trees are famed the world over for their majesty and beauty. The majority of visitors spend their time in Yosemite Valley only, but the surrounding mountains and forests are equally impressive.

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