National Parks Nurture Us, Let’s Nurture Them

This past Memorial Day, I enjoyed a visit with my friend, Nancy, to Arlington National Cemetery, which is part of the U.S. National Park Service (NPS). I hadn’t been to the cemetery in years, so I was excited to visit especially after I’d blogged about it the previous week as one of the most visible symbols of Memorial Day.

Arlington National Cemetery
Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia

We spent a couple of hours that pleasant Monday morning walking among the rows of white marble gravestones that grid over 600 acres of the grassy hills and dales of a former plantation in Arlington, VA. The cemetery rises up just south of the Potomac River and offers spectacular views of Washington, DC. The grounds are grand and serene.

An Historic Home Needs a Face Lift

But my heart sank as we approached the top of the hill to visit Arlington House, the mansion and historic centerpiece of the property. The home’s history is remarkable: It dates from 1802 and was built by George Washington Parke Custis, the adopted grandson of President George Washington, and later was home to Robert E. Lee until he became commander of the rebel forces during the Civil War.

We were still many yards away from the house when it was obvious that the exterior of this Greek Revival masterpiece badly needed renovation, particularly the wooden façade of the large pediment. The dull beige paint is cracked and peeling and the whole front looks shabby.

Sequestration Won’t Help

Arlington House from below
Arlington House from below

Arlington House had undergone some interior renovation the year before, I was told later in a phone call to a park ranger. She added that there are plans to renovate the exterior next year. But it’s unclear whether that will happen, given the 8% budget cuts that the National Park Service will have to absorb due to federal sequestration.

Those are the automatic cuts to all federal government discretionary spending that took effect on March 1 of this year. They are dumb cuts that no one wanted, which do nothing to address the long-term budget deficits that cloud our country’s fiscal future.

So this is, in part, a cautionary tale of what to expect as the summer park season begins.

Funding Has Fallen Short for Years

After I returned home from Arlington National Cemetery later that day, I turned on NBC News and watched a segment called: “National Parks Show Signs of Wear and Tear.” It included a depressing litany of the consequences of budgetary woes that the park service has, in fact, suffered for several years:

  • 7 years of flat budget appropriations, despite rising costs
  • 900 jobs unfilled, including park rangers
  • 1000 seasonal jobs cut
  • park police furloughed
  • park entrances unmanned
  • a maintenance backlog of $11 billion!

About 400 sites make up the National Park system – parks, monuments, battlefields and coastlines – which over 280 million people will visit this year including millions of tourists from all over the world. The National Park Service operates on a total budget of about $2.6 billion, a pittance by federal budget standards. The massive backlog resulted from over 10 years of shifting funds away from investments like maintenance to operations.

Our Parks Bring Huge ROI

Hundreds of thousands gather on the National Mall to celebrate 4th of July
Hundreds of thousands gather on the National Mall to celebrate 4th of July, Washington, DC

Forget the value of their historical and natural assets for a moment: National parks also offer a huge return on investment (ROI) for taxpayers. In February, the National Park Service released its annual report, which includes a measure of its economic impact based on peer-reviewed research done in cooperation with Michigan State University.

In 2011, National Park visitors generated $30.1 billion in economic activity and supported 252,000 jobs nationwide. That means for every $1 spent by taxpayers to fund NPS, national parks generated more than $10 in economic activity. One third of the $30 billion total spent by visitors went directly into communities within 60 miles of a park.

Yet the entire park system is being starved of maintenance, staff, and a funding mechanism that keeps pace with costs let alone invests in its future.

Relish Your Park Experiences

Before I tell you how you can help, I’d ask that you take a quick mental inventory of all of the national park experiences in your life. Odds are you’ve had more than you realize.

Go ahead, right now. Picture those places in your mind.

Yosemite Falls
Yosemite Falls, California

Remember how you felt: seeing the Diorama and measuring the cost of our worst war at Gettysburg National Battlefield; reading the inscriptions of Lincoln’s speeches at the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall; smelling saltwater and listening to the waves as you walked the beautiful beach at Cape Cod National Seashore.

Then turn your mind’s eye to the gigantic, muscular parks of the great American west: Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Arches, Zion, White Sands, Olympic. These places are almost alien in their awesomeness, staggering in their raw majesty.

How small did you feel standing at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon? How blown away were you by the roaring beauty of two-tiered Yosemite Falls?

How to Help

Here are simple steps you can take to help preserve our national parks.

The Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon, Arizona

When visiting a park:

  • Don’t – move or remove anything. Not one flower, not one rock. These are public assets to be preserved. Look at them, photograph them, wax poetic over them. That’s your right for paying admission, but that’s it.
  • Don’t – touch, if a sign says not to. Why? Because the trace oils of one finger may not hurt the object, but the trace oils of thousands of fingers will. This is the same reason why museums impose that rule. Collective touching damages.
  • Don’t – feed animals. They usually don’t eat what we do, and if they lose their fear of humans, they can put their lives and yours at risk.
  • Do – stay on designated trails and walkways. The NPS barely has money to cut the grass and weed historic gardens, you think there’ll be money to re-sod the new trail you and others decided to cut through the park? No.
  • Do – visit the park’s concessions, book stores and visitor centers, and buy stuff. The food is decent, there are quality souvenirs and clothing, and the park service publishes very fine historical and coffee table books both large and small.
Ranger hike with kids at Biscayne National Park, Florida
A ranger hikes with kids at Biscayne National Park, Florida

Also:

  • Take your kid, or an “under-engaged” kid, to a national park. As baby boomers age, younger generations who didn’t grow up enjoying the outdoors will be the ones the park system must attract and count on for its sustainability.
  • Consider becoming a national park volunteer. Given all the staffing cut-backs, park administrators need volunteer help more than ever!
  • Consider donating to one of hundreds of non-profits that support national parks, including nation-wide groups – National Park Foundation, National Parks Conservation Association – and the many “friends of” individual parks that you’ve enjoyed.

My favorite writer, Wallace Stegner, said national parks were “the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”

In 2016, the National Park Service will celebrate its 100th birthday. By then, let’s make sure America’s “best idea” reflects stewardship at our best rather than our worst.