Busy season at America's national parks is coming to a close. During the parks' centennial year, we've seen lots of news coverage celebrating "America's best idea." Google even released a 'Google Doodle' on the National Park Service's 100th Birthday last week.
But when Congress gets back to Washington, D.C. after Labor Day, it's up to lawmakers whether the National Parks Service will be around for another 100.
In 2015, nearly 307 million visitors explored the 84 million acres of parkland across 371 U.S. national parks. This year, visitors are expected to top that record because of the publicity around the centennial. To say the Park's 27,000 staff and temporary workers have been busy would be an understatement.
But NPS employees have long been fighting what seems to be a losing battle. All those visitors take their toll and the National Park Service has reported it has $11.5 billion in backlog work to critical infrastructure and deferred maintenance projects. The LA Times reported that half of that work includes "roads and bridges, and the rest covers wastewater treatment plants, buildings, water systems, campgrounds and other facilities" — hardly creature comforts.
Entrance fees to the park are kept low so they remain accessible to as many people as possible. These fees are mostly directed toward maintenance, but they barely scratch the surface of needed repairs.
NPS had a lot of work to do even before sequestration – a series of deep, automatic cuts to agency funding – was implemented in 2011. The last major investment in the parks from Congress was way back in 1966, the year the NPS celebrated it's 50th birthday.
Don't doubt for a second that there will be lawmakers who say we already spend too much on National Parks. But they just can't see the forest for the trees. It's estimated that the economic activity spurred by park visitors' spending nears $9 billion— that's three times the Park's annual budget. Visitors aren't just visiting the parks – they're also spending money and creating hundreds of thousands of jobs in communities within 60 miles of the parks.
In an effort to make up the shortfall, it's been suggested that corporations could cough up some money to affix their names to some of these natural monuments. There's been backlash to the very notion of corporate sponsorship, but big business has a history of trying to turn the National Parks into a money-making venture.
Activists and preservationists like John Muir had to convince Congress to protect our national wonders before they were mined, logged, and drained for every last penny they're worth. With efforts to privatize a whole array of government agencies–from dismantling the VA, to privatizing screeners at TSA—it isn't hard to imagine lawmakers trying to sell off parts of the National Parks.
The Centennial has brought renewed interest and focus to the parks. They've been the subject of documentaries, magazine articles, newspaper columns, and memorial books. But unless we take decisive action, the parks as we know them could disappear forever.
President Obama is committed to carrying on the legacy of the NPS. Through the "Every Kid in a Park" initiative, fourth-graders and their families got free admission to the parks in 2015. He's also designated three new national monuments that protect more than 700,000 acres of land.
To top it off, President Obama's budget proposal calls for a $1 billion investment to stem the decay of our parks. His actions recognize that the deferred maintenance, chronic underfunding, and changes in the environment are eating away at our National Parks.
But will Congress act now to save them? We'll have a better idea when they pick up the gavel after Labor Day.
For now, go out and explore a National Park near you. You might even see an AFGE member while you're in the great outdoors.
If you're going to be stuck indoors over Labor Day, you can still enjoy our national treasures through NPS Webcams. Here's just a few: