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The Source: How To Save The National Parks From Ourselves

Americans love their national parks. According to the National Park Service, the 410 sites, including 59 parks, drew a record-breaking 307.2 million number of visitors last year. But that love affair may be more than some of the parks can bear.

The most visited parks, such as Great Smoky Mountains National Park (10.5 million visitors), Yellowstone (4.1 million), or the Grand Canyon (5.5 million) can be overwhelmed on popular holidays, causing long lines, sold out campsites, and overwhelmed infrastructure. In many ways, the National Park Service can't keep up.

The NPS says due to continued congressional underfunding, they have nearly $12 billion in deferred maintenance, including nearly every site in the system.

"While Congress provided increases this year, the annual bill for maintenance in America's national parks is still almost twice as much as is appropriated," wrote NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis earlier this year.

So while people love their parks, they may be loving them to death. What are the solutions?

To shore up funding, many have suggested capacity or surge pricing so that people pay more on popular holidays or busier times. That would automatically increase funding and offer a disincentive for an overwhelming amount of people to come. The problem many point out is that the parks were founded to preserve these areas for all, but surge pricing would impact lower income people disproportionately. 

Entrance fees absolutely have to go up, argues Reed Watson from the Property and Environment Research Center. He writes on the New York Times website, "We Americans want uncrowded, bucolic vistas, wildlife encounters and we want them for free - or more precisely, we want them for the taxpayer-subsidized price of a $30 seven-day car pass." That's beyond unsustainable, Watson argues. 

Phil Francis, former park superintendent for Great Smoky Mountains National Park / Blue Ridge Parkway - agrees that raising the entrance fees is necessary, but it doesn't go far enough. It is great to have a big bank account for projects, but he wonders who is going to implement and administer those projects? Francis explains that despite the rise in funding the parks would see, staffing is still determined at the national level and is subject to congressional budget approval. 

Some have suggested limiting access as a solution, but as Francis wrote in a recent New York Times post this is rarely necessary and increases to funding and staffing are still far more important, "The biggest impediment to park health is the lack of funding for day-to-day operations and an adequate number of trained employees."

How do we solve it? What are we willing to put into our national parks?

Guests:

  • Phil Francis, former superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway, is a member of the executive council of the Coalition to Protect America's Parks
  • Reed Watson, executive director at the Property and Environment Research Center
Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org and on Twitter at @paulflahive