The Future Of National Parks

Everyone loves national parks--but are they being loved to death? Join representatives from the Park Service, Department of the Interior, Sierra Club, American Hiking Society, and more to explore the fate of this embattled American institution.

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

As Wallace Stegner so famously wrote, national parks are the best idea America ever had. Maybe so, but when we invited 25 experts to discuss the system’s future, the message we heard was alarming. The prevailing consensus: Our most precious lands are increasingly vulnerable to environmental, political, and cultural forces that could forever alter the way we know and use them. The challenges and controversies are many, from congestion and smog to demoralized staff and privatization. For anyone who cares deeply about this wild, brilliant idea, what follows should come as a wake-up call.


Chuck Clusen We’re loving our parks to death. More and more Americans use them, and there are not enough controls. Meanwhile, air pollution, water pollution, clear-cut logging, mining and other resource extraction, industrial development, and sprawl are damaging many of our parks. Unfortunately, the current administration refuses to recognize many of the threats from outside the parks and favors more use and recreational development within the parks.

Randall Kendrick I’m worried about preserving the natural and cultural resources found in our park areas, particularly those with lots of acreage. Mojave National Preserve probably will always be 1.7 million acres, but will it contain desert bighorn sheep or desert tortoises–or will the sheep get shot off and the tortoises sold on the black market? Right now, there are only 4 or 5 rangers for that 1.7 million acres.

Gale Norton Wherever I travel throughout our Department of Interior lands, we have problems with invasive species. We’ve bolstered the funding for our Natural Resource Challenge program, which helps address invasive species as well as other ecosystem study and improvement. That increased from $14 million in 2000 to $76 million for this coming year.

Bruce Hamilton The boundaries established by Congress are not ecological boundaries. Many scientific studies have shown that they are inadequate to protect biological resources. We need to go back and protect entire ecosystems. We also shouldn’t be clear-cutting right up to the boundaries. We shouldn’t be leasing for oil or for geothermal resources just outside a park when it could disrupt the geysers inside the park.

Scott Groene Utah faces lots of threats–a drilling proposal in Glen Canyon, politicians pressing for off-road vehicle use in parks, the BLM trying to lease right up to park boundaries, overflights, dams on the Colorado. The thing with Utah is we have probably the most unprotected wilderness in the Lower 48 surrounding these relatively small parks.

Clark Collins These environmental issues need to be taken seriously, but they shouldn’t be used as an excuse by some folks to say that certain types of recreation aren’t appropriate because they have some impact on those concerns.

Greg Miller If we see continued decay in the parks and we continue to allow it, that’s a far more disturbing sign for our societal values than a loss of resources. It means we don’t understand our place in the world any longer.


Don Barry Great Smoky Mountains. Between the traffic jams and the haze, the park is in great trouble. The other one is Glacier. We’re losing our glaciers. We’re going to have to rename it No More Glaciers National Park.

Randall Kendrick Even though progress has been made there, Organ Pipe is still very dangerous. When you see night-vision photographs of a stream of illegal aliens walking through a campground when people are tucked away in their tents, I have to think it’s not a safe situation.

Gale Norton Certainly if there were something imperiled, we would be investing in it. We now have a system for prioritizing maintenance needs across the park service, so it’s not dependent anymore on how loudly a superintendent can complain.

Mike Tollefson Smokies needs to resolve pollution and overcrowding issues, but the park’s working on it. Sequoia also has an air-quality problem. The NPS can apply pressure on those issues, but we can’t solve them. The American public has to want to solve them.

Tom Kiernan Last summer we had 42 days where it wasn’t safe for certain groups to hike in the Smokies. To say it’s not healthy to hike in the park? That is so offensive. We as a country can do better than that.

Dave Foreman I love Everglades, and we’ve made an ethical stand to restore it. But we have to face the reality that all that money would be better spent elsewhere, because in 20 years it will be under water due to global warming.

Fran Mainella Actually, I think all of our parks are in very good condition.

Mark Udall I can understand how the Secretary and the Director want to focus on the good news, and there is legitimate good news. At the same time, the parks can play the canary-in-the-coal-mine role for us as a society when it comes to crowding or air quality. Rather than shy away from these challenges, I think we’re better served by saying, “OK, here’s the reality, what do we do?”


Gale Norton Congestion is an issue in several parks. It’s something that requires planning to address. We just received additional funding in the highway bill that Congress passed [in July 2005] that will give us more than $200 million a year for maintenance for existing roads.

Roderick Nash We have to come back to the idea that the wilderness experience is not something many people can share together. It’s not a rock concert. This is something that by definition involves solitude. People are going to have to wait their turn.

Don Barry We need to do everything we can to keep our parks available to the public, but we need to be smarter at how we do it. One example is the new transportation system in Zion. It’s fabulous. The park is quiet again and people are seeing wildlife along roads where they hadn’t seen them in years. We need to look for ways to apply that model in other parks. The only alternative is when we hit that daily limit we can’t let anyone else in, and that’s a big mistake.

Mike Tollefson Yosemite is heavily visited. The big challenge is how we accommodate population expansion in California. Our shuttle system is part of the answer. Shuttle bus use has gone up by a million riders in the last year. Visitation hasn’t changed–people just haven’t been moving their cars around. I’m guessing 30 years from now we’ll have a shuttle system from Badger to Glacier Point that’s more “Zionesque.”


Robert Arnberger The law is very clear: The Organic Act created the parks to conserve the scenery and the wildlife therein. It’s one of the few pieces of legislation in our nation that specifies we do something for generations not yet born. And it’s under constant assault of reinterpretation.

Randall Kendrick Park-service managers and their superiors at Interior act as though the protection of park resources is not a high priority simply by the staff levels they maintain.

Gale Norton Trying to manage visitor use and resource protection is a constant balancing act. The parks are going to have to do that for the long-term future. The law that establishes the park system has the tension within it of trying to balance current enjoyment and future protection of the parks.

Michael Scott I would suggest it’s not a balance. The first duty of the NPS is to make sure resources are protected. If that doesn’t happen, you gradually go down a slippery slope to where you wake up 20 years from now and say, “Look what we lost.” You have to protect the values of the parks. That’s what draws 3 million people to Yellowstone every year–not blinking neon lights and a casino on Yellowstone Lake.


Don Barry Yes. The best example is with air quality. The NPS can’t solve that problem. The EPA and the White House can. The administration needs to decide whether it wants to protect the national parks or promote the streamlining of power plants.

Michael Frome No, they need more people protection. We need the regulations already in place enforced. There’s no point in giving them any more laws.

Chuck Clusen The best way to protect the parks would be to grant them wilderness status, which would ban all industrial and most commercial development. The Wilderness Act of 1964 requires Congress to review all the parks for wilderness status, and we’re still waiting for it to get the job done.

Dave Foreman Back in the ’70s, conservationists put park wilderness on the back burner because the Forest Service and BLM areas were far more threatened by industrial extraction. We need to get back to pushing wilderness designation for parks that lack it. A lot of flagship parks–Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Teton, Rocky Mountain, all the Utah parks–don’t have wilderness protection. That’s the only way we can be sure those places stay wild.

Bruce Hamilton No, we need to enforce existing laws. We have trees dying from acid rain.


Gale Norton The parks certainly do better than any other federal land management agency. People love the parks; they want to see them well taken care of.

Bruce Hamilton The parks are chronically underfunded. If you look at the backlog, we have basically relegated science and biology and interpretation to a skeleton force, and most of the resources are getting pumped into taking of tolls and law enforcement. The number of rangers out there interacting with the public is steadily shrinking.

Fran Mainella In 2005, we had the biggest increase in operations in the NPS’s 88-year history. Before that, we had gone 10 years where salaries and fixed costs weren’t fully covered.

Mark Udall In tight times, we’ve mortgaged some of the future. With decisions we’ve made about defense budgets, tax cuts, and other priorities, the parks are de facto targets.

Robert Arnberger The parks are tremendously underfunded. You can call up any superintendent, and they’ll tell you their funding is 50 to 60 percent less than they need. The attention the parks have received from Congress has lacked the commitment and sustainable consistency that they require. You can’t throw money at something for a couple of years and then walk away from it for a decade.


Suzanne Lewis Yes. We are in the business of parks.

Gale Norton I think they should. They need to have a more focused approach so that money is spent in the best possible way. We’re working now on helping parks evaluate their mission and how their budget helps forward that mission. New analysis methods are helping the parks look at things like sharing employees or resources. In the past, we used a silo approach: If they needed an archaeologist, they needed one on staff in that park. Our other agencies, like the BLM, never had budgets as large as the NPS’s, so they’ve learned to share employees. I think there are opportunities to do that within the park service.

Scott Silver Some people say money is the big issue. That’s wrong. Some people in the NPS have a fixation with Disneyland. They would like to see our parks as efficient in providing mass entertainment as Disney is. They think that bringing a business model and sponsorship to the park is good because they need dollars. We’ll destroy the parks totally by doing that.

Fran Mainella We have to operate in a more businesslike way. Part of decision-making is showing “If you give me X dollars, I’m going to remove Y acres of invasive species.”

Greg Miller The national parks will never pay for themselves. If you try to do that, you put unacceptable tradeoffs in front of managers. They won’t be managing for conservation and sustainable recreation activities; they’ll be managing to make their budgets and to maintain an infrastructure.


Michael Frome Partnerships mean more voice for commercial interests. They don’t mean partnerships for preservation; they mean partnerships for exploitation.

Jerry Rogers Some kinds of sponsorship would be humiliating to the American people. You know, a sports stadium is a facility; national parks are a resource, America’s crown jewels. We ought to pay the bulk of the cost with taxpayer dollars.

Suzanne Lewis Partnerships are going to be a big part of our future. You’ve got to manage them, manage expectations of what that partnership can or cannot do. But I think corporations are respectful of national parks being public domain.

Fran Mainella Today the park service is 56 percent private sector in all that we do. So when we do big projects, we need to do so in a way that is respectful.

Robyn Bishop We [at Ford] definitely want to be part of helping the parks address their transportation challenges and preserving them for generations. We’re proud that we have been able to develop a model private-public partnership. Our transportation programs were not something that Ford developed in a vacuum and then said to the park service, “You know, we’d like to fund these.” The park service came to us with its transportation challenges.

Bruce Hamilton Partnerships shouldn’t be a substitute for direct appropriations. The parks are the heritage and responsibility of all Americans. We all enjoy them, we all own them, and we all need to invest in their future–whether or not Kodak or Coca Cola is having a good day and feels generous. If they want to offer some money to augment existing budgets, that’s fine, but it’s the responsibility of Congress and the administration to appropriate funds to guarantee the perpetuation of the parks.

Don Barry Sponsorship and that kind of philanthropy should be add-on. It should be taking it to the next level. Instead, it is filling in potholes.


J.T. Reynolds We’re requesting an entrance-fee increase here [at Death Valley]. Right now it’s $10 and we’re asking to double that. I don’t see a problem with that, and I think the public is OK with it. When they can go a place like Walt Disney World and pay 50 bucks for a Passport, 20 bucks is a bargain.

Scott Silver User fees are at their core anti-democratic, the most aggressive form of taxation ever invented. Parks were set aside so people could interact with wilderness and their natural and cultural heritage. I haven’t been to a national park since fee demo. So long as park managers think of me as their customer, which they now do, then I have no intention of patronizing them.

Dave Foreman I’ve been disappointed with the conservation movement at it’s unwillingness to pay fees. The Golden Eagle Pass is one of the great bargains in America–it ought to be twice the price.


Jerry Rogers As the population gets older, more people are less able to get out and do the actual footwork to really enjoy the park resources. And they’re more inclined to drive their motor homes into the park and have 50 amps of electricity and water and sewage hookups, and then they want to take their ORV and drive it on backcountry trails. The primary consequence of that trend will be that nature, archaeology, and the experience of visitors who don’t employ mechanized means will be impacted. So it’s difficult to say which species will be most harmed.

Clark Collins Some parks have designated wilderness in them, and in those areas, the right type of recreation should be accommodated–primitive, non-motorized recreation. But not all of our national parklands need to be managed as wilderness. We’ve got about 105 million acres of designated wilderness nationwide–some of that in national parks, some of it in other public lands. That’s an awful lot of acreage to accommodate the folks who seek that kind of experience.

Roderick Nash We have to realize these are special places and we can’t do all this stuff in these places. There are other spots where we can do those activities. I think it’s going to take an increased emphasis on ethics and values on what’s right and wrong with these parklands. It’s going to get into churches and schools and the places that normally build and communicate and teach our ethics. We know it’s wrong to steal; we should also be reminded that it is wrong to steal from other species.

J.T. Reynolds We need to think about what’s good for business. If we want these resources to last a long time, don’t have a recreational pursuit that’s going to have a negative impact. Here in Death Valley, we have many miles of four-wheel-drive roads, and that should be encouraged. And if someone wants to mountain bike on those roads, so be it. But to just strike out and create trails so bikes can go off-road, I’d say no.

Greg Miller Right now it’s turning into a free-for-all because the government has allowed so many well-funded special interests to come into play. And the hiking community has let the motorized recreation community, which arguably has the highest negative impact of any activity, to usurp our role as recreationists. We have to go back to the numbers and look at the 75-plus million people who call themselves hikers and then another 14 or 15 million backpackers–that’s a large cross-section of America. We need to be more active.

Gale Norton There’s going to be continuing tension. I’d like to see recreation use continue because I think it’s important for people to connect with the outdoors. A lot of people have to enjoy what they’re doing to build that connection.

Dave Foreman I haven’t been able to hike for 2 years because of back surgery. I don’t know if I’ll ever backpack again. If I can’t, that’s no reason to demand jeep access to desert parks. Parks don’t exist to give me a thrill. [Former NPS director] Roger Kennedy once said that while the national parks’ purpose is for pleasure, it does not mean reckless glee. Any biker or snowmobiler has the same opportunity for access to any national park that I do. The problem is people don’t see themselves as separate from their machines.

Don Barry There are places where some things are just not appropriate. Driving a motorcycle through a national park–no problem. Driving a motorcycle up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial–I don’t think so. If you say, “Leave your motorcycle in the parking lot,” are you denying the public access to the Lincoln Memorial? No.


Gale Norton I feel very good about the current compromise. The newest generation of snowmobiles has cut emissions by 90 percent or more. The number of snowmobiles has been restricted, and we’ve required the use of different entrances so you don’t have all the snowmobiles sitting in one spot running their engines. I was there and spent several days going around the park–it was fabulous. Winter is truly the most magical time to be in Yellowstone.

Don Barry Here’s one statistic that turned me on a dime: Snowmobiles in the park represented only 16 percent of the vehicles but generated 65 to 70 percent of the pollution.

Clark Collins I think snowmobile use is entirely appropriate in Yellowstone and Denali and Voyageurs. I’m concerned about the pressure that’s being applied by folks who don’t want certain types of recreation to take place in our national parks. Our parks need to be protected and users need to be concerned about their impact, but I think our national parks are for the pleasure of the American public.

Mark Udall I thought we should cut back on snowmobile use to protect the resources and health of the rangers and other users. The snowmobile industry had years to build cleaner, quieter engines, and it’s begun to take those steps. But there are thousands of miles that can be traveled in that West Yellowstone region by snowmobiles and I think there ought to be some areas left to the quiet sounds of winter.


Michael Frome There are many good people in the National Park Service; there aren’t many in the leadership. One of my friends said to me: “Don’t give us more money–we’ll do the wrong thing with it.” If there is more money, they’ll build more roads and improve concessions. And give raises to people who don’t deserve them.

Jerry Rogers The professionalism of the park-service employees needs to be respected. These people have spent a lifetime learning and qualifying themselves as professionals, be they law-enforcement rangers, interpreters, or biologists. And right now, two or three minds at the very top are doing all the thinking and suppressing any attempt at innovation or disagreement. So you’ve got two or three minds working in the wrong direction–and you’ve got 20,000 minds being suppressed. That’s stupid.

Suzanne Lewis One of the greatest things that’s going to happen is our 100th anniversary in 11 years. And the park service, in evaluating that centennial, should recognize that all those great accomplishments are underpinned by the men and women in the NPS. We didn’t accomplish those things without the human factor. I would hope the centennial would be a big uplift.

Randall Kendrick One study found that in recent years, appropriations for the park service is up 55 percent while the number of commissioned park rangers is down 9 percent. It’s nice to have procurement officers and a bunch of people in personnel, but look at what’s happened in Petrified Forest, where the number of rangers has been cut in half. You couldn’t walk the park 35 years ago without finding petrified wood every few feet. Now most of it has been taken away by souvenir hunters.

To make things worse, the Interior Department is trying to take away our enhanced retirement on a case-by-case basis. That’s why so many people are heading to other agencies–so they can maintain their retirement. They usually get better pay and better appreciation from management for their efforts.

Mark Udall I have concerns about the professional staff long-term. I worry that in the rush to worship at the altar of privatization, we undermine a legacy of unique individuals and expertise and historical perspective.


(Editors’ note: Late in August 2005, news media widely reported that Paul Hoffman, a high-ranking official at the Department of the Interior, had proposed and circulated a radical revision of the NPS Management Policies, the document that essentially spells out the agency’s mission, rules, and procedures.)

Fran Mainella In response to a request by Congress, we are currently reviewing the NPS Management Policies. This review was never intended to, nor will it, change our core mission. Contrary to recent media coverage, this document is not secret. A task force of 16 career NPS employees recently met to pro-vide recommendations on the working document. The document remains a work in progress.

Ron Tipton Potentially it’s a big deal. The proposed rewrite completely shifts the focus from preservation while allowing recreation, to a more permissive approach. It would allow as much access as possible unless there was irreversible damage to park resources. It now says, “There shall be no impairment of resources.” The park service is putting together its own draft. There has been lots of pressure for them to backtrack. I suspect this will go on for a while.

Jerry Rogers No one rewrites 195 pages of NPS rules and circulates them in the upper echelons of the Interior Department without the blessing of higher-ups. This radical rewrite stands nearly 100 years of stewardship on its head. The rules would subordinate parks to the agendas of cities and states. Every reference to NPS “collaboration” with cities near parks has been changed to “cooperation.” This would negate the superintendents’ abilities to represent the broad interests of the people of the United States when they don’t match narrow local interests. The draft rules also would eliminate the scientific underpinning of park management. The entire draft has a decidedly anti-intellectual, anti-science tone.

David Barna There are two camps in this building [NPS offices] and I don’t know where it’s going to go. It’s become such a mess, the Director’s basically said, let’s stop talking about who shot whom. She says she will go forward with a draft that the consensus of the career leadership buys into. How far that balloon goes out of the building will be interesting to see.


Roderick Nash The great era of park creation is over, and now the challenge is how to use the areas we set aside.

Robert Arnberger The certain death of the National Park Service is to stop where it’s at. It should always be reserved for the best and the brightest examples of what we are as a people. There may not be new natural areas, but there will be historic or cultural areas. You’ve got to remember that more than two-thirds of the system consists of historical areas, places that mark who we are as American people and the evolution of our thinking. We have several park areas that were camps for Japanese-Americans during World War II, where people were held against their will. These are places where we can learn about what we have done so that we don’t repeat our mistakes.

Gale Norton The trend is to manage those areas within the existing federal ownership. What happened in the past was the conversion of land from the BLM to national parks. Today, the BLM is seeing an incredible increase in its recreation use. So I don’t think we need to convert those lands into national parks.

Bruce Hamilton We should create a tallgrass prairie national park. You’d have migrating bison, wolves, bears, even bighorn sheep. Two representative samples of this are the Flint Hills in Kansas and the Osage Hills in Oklahoma.

Dave Foreman The park service had a program to try to have national parks in all different ecosystems in the United States. We need to get serious about that again: Maine Woods, turning Hells Canyon into a national park. Of course we aren’t going to get anywhere with that under the current administration.


Roderick Nash The overriding value of the parks is going to be not as playgrounds for us, but as sanctuaries for other species that share the planet with us and as places we can go and derive our pleasure from watching that spectacle.

Robert Arnberger I believe we’re on a collision course with mediocrity that’s caused by underfunding the operational cost of the parks. The problem is that Congress and our political will is tied to short-term solutions for long-term problems. Managing the parks forever requires a sustainable commitment that doesn’t fluctuate with every political administration.

Dave Foreman If we keep the same people in power, the prognosis is grim. Not even Reagan’s administration went after the essence of national parks. Today, they are looking at ways to privatize parks so people can make money on them. They’re trying to turn them into miniature Disneylands.


Scott Silver The parks are not democratic anymore. We are running the parks for the benefit of the tourism and travel industry and motorized recreation industry. The parks have become the anchor stores, so to speak–bringing business to gateway communities. But the parks are not anchor stores; they’re an anchor to our traditions, our heritage. National parks are America’s equivalent of Europe’s cathedrals.

Fran Mainella I do think the relevance of our national park system in the 21st century is a major concern. If we are not staying relevant to our young people today and to our different cultures, that’ll be a big danger for us in the future.

Robert Arnberger We have increasing numbers of citizens from Latin America and Asia coming here for the fruits of democracy, and they often come from places with degraded environments or that lack a tradition of national parks. Well, those people are going to become a voting majority. Will they believe in our democratic ideals and take care of the parks?

J.T. Reynolds I’m sure the future will involve the same challenges that we veterans have been dealing with for 30-plus years–not having enough human and financial resources to get all that’s necessary done. Even when things are prioritized, they will still triage high-priority items. But the medium-priority things are very important, too.

Jerry Rogers If only one or two parks have ever done comprehensive species inventories and you don’t know which creatures are out there, how are you going to know whether you’re helping them or hurting them? Ditto for archaeological sites. There are thousands of sites in the park system, the vast majority of which have never been identified. And the park service tends to discover them when it’s building a road.


Roderick Nash If people feel the parks are being inadequately protected, they need to stand up and make that case. It might require direct action rather than letters to a park superintendent.

Fran Mainella If you go onto, you can find out about volunteering. Volunteerism contributes over 5 million hours of help annually, and it not only gets people out to do some projects we might not otherwise be able to do, but it also gives them a chance to see the parks from behind the scenes.

Bruce Hamilton Every park needs friends. At the very least, find the park closest to you and adopt it. If you don’t have a local park, adopt one in Alaska because they need help.

Vin Cipolla I’d like to see extensive citizen support, tens of thousands of Americans contributing to the parks, whether it’s $10 or $1 million. I would like to see parks become a $1 billion philanthropy. I don’t think everything about the parks is the federal government’s obligation. That is shirking our responsibility–and the personal connection, which we should be nurturing.

Tom Kiernan We need to pull together the administration, Congress, concessionaires, gateway-community chambers of commerce, conservation groups, historic preservation groups, Civil War battle groups–we need to pull everyone together and galvanize a political movement to protect the parks.

Roderick Nash I’d like to see the concept of stewardship spread more widely through the schools and the media, where people will stand up as they did, say, against dams in the Grand Canyon in the 1960s. The same kind of anger that we saw during the Vietnam War. Why not bring that to nature just like we brought it to our treatment of blacks and women and homosexuals? Why not say nature is the next opposed minority and its rights also need to be defended?

Greg Miller The level of environmental awareness and literacy in the United States is probably at a crisis level. We just don’t recognize the tremendous value of the natural habitat and nature as part of our own well-being. We’re not putting enough time and attention into educating our populace. I have three school-age kids, and they tend to get more information about the demise of the rainforest and the Amazon than they do about backyard situations in our own country.


Greg Miller I think that the park system is going to face growing international scrutiny. If we continue to let the flagship decline, why would other countries continue to push if they see the United States set a bad example? Here we’re touting the tremendous need for developing countries to put more of their treasury into protecting their natural patrimony, and the richest country in the world is cutting that very base. Our global leadership in this area is at risk.

J.T. Reynolds The NPS is one of the last vestiges of who we are and what we had as a country once upon a time. We ought to at least have some places set aside where not only can we enjoy and see what the wild looks like, but future generations can, too. We don’t need parking lots everywhere.

Roderick Nash I think that the national park idea is one of the best ideas we’ve ever had. And I think that’s something in an age in which there’s considerable criticism of America. This a towering achievement and one that we need to safeguard. The stakes are really big here–they far transcend the needs of an already bloated and overdemanding species such as ours. We’re not just talking about places to play. We’re talking about places that have a huge symbolic significance for our culture.

Executive Editor Peter Flax is the very proud owner of a Golden Eagle Pass.

Trending on Backpacker