Fact: The National Park Service has an annual operating budget of just over $2.2 billion to manage all 483 park units. Truth: It’s not nearly enough.
Over the past 30 years, necessary repairs and upkeep have gone largely unfunded, creating an infamous backlog of $12 billion in deferred maintenance. The result? Crumbling historic structures, long lines for restrooms, overflowing parking lots, and failing trail systems.
During that same time period, we’ve added parks but not funding, which means the new parks slide toward disrepair even as they divert resources from the older ones.
One solution, of course, is to increase funding to address the backlog and appropriately maintain all of the parks. A lot of hikers would likely support that option, but the federal government—under both parties—has not, and the problem looks to be getting worse. So it’s time for another solution: Some parks must be closed and placed in temporary caretaker status to free up funds and staff for those units that are most in need of rehabilitation, restoration, and protection.
It’s a radical plan, but it can work. The first step is admitting we failed.
The second step is figuring out how we can do better. And for that, we need to set some priorities.
It begins with the establishment of a national commission, selected from groups actively involved in working with the National Park system. This commission will have the controversial task of ranking each site in terms of its significance, endangerment, and use. There is a precedent for this in the Base Realignment and Closure process already used by the Department of Defense.
The commission would have to find new ways of assigning funding to ensure protection of the high-priority places and begin dealing with the $12 billion backlog. Once the backlog is under control, parks closed or reduced in operations would be brought back online.
Now hold onto your Nalgene. No one is suggesting that we shutter Yosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier, or the Great Smokies, or that we mothball Mesa Verde, the National Mall, Independence Hall, or Gettysburg. There are, however, park units that are seldom visited but burn up cash.
In fact, the vast majority of the park-going public wouldn’t even notice the closures or reduced services but would see improving conditions elsewhere. Mothballed parks would benefit from reduced hours of operation and smaller crowds. They’d get a rest until we’re ready for them.
True, some communities might see a reduction in their overall visitation and tourism-related spending. Some jobs would be lost at the local level and some park personnel would need to be relocated. But we can’t keep doing more with the same money. That’s what created the backlog in the first place.
I have no illusions that this can be accomplished quickly and without anguish—feathers will be ruffled. But we can’t continue to pretend that the park system is all right, or that the future is being served by the decisions of today. Yes, a process like this would hurt, but what’s the alternative?
If we want these places to endure in more than Americana memory, we need to invest in them. And if we can’t—or won’t—increase funding, then we need a new way to spend what we have. In short, we need to set priorities.
Gil Lusk is author of National Parks Our Living Treasure: A Time for Concern.