National Parks need autonomy

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Areas created and managed as National Park System sites are the nation’s living treasures, so why are Congress and the Executive Branch treating them like old used cars? A few dings, a little rust, some knocks, oil leaks, no problem.

The National Park Service has an annual budget just over $2 billion and manages some 483* sites around the United States, Puerto Rico and U.S. territories. Congress and Executive Branches over the past 30 years have allowed necessary repairs and upkeep of our Treasures to go largely unfunded, with a current documented backlog of some $12 billion, six times the annual budget for the agency. The only thing being done is adding more parks to the system.

We need to close some parks, shifting funds and staff to the parks that are most in need of rehabilitation and restoration. Action needs to be taken to prioritize our parks from one to four-hundred-and-eighty-three, from the most at risk to the area’s most suitable for closure and caretaker status. For 30 years our park employees have been asked to do more with less, to the point that we now depend on 220,000 volunteers just to meet important public service needs. Volunteers help the parks in the very best of ways, but they cannot address infrastructure needs, failing structures, and proper utilization of limited funds and resources.

The beautiful pictorial images of parks tell a story of the parks in grand condition with few problems. But no one takes pictures of poorly maintained historic structures, long lines for restrooms, overflowing parking areas and failing trails. We have concern but lack scientific, social, and historic research programs and knowledge in support of our parks and the delicate ecosystems, archaeological sites, and historic structures managed.

The future of the National Park Service hangs on decisions badly needed, but not being made. A review of the past 103 years is needed. Why have parks gotten to this place of concern they are now in? Vulnerable treasures subject to misuse, poor funding, failing infrastructure and complete lack of proper proactive planning to correct the present situation and prevent future deterioration of the treasures managed. There are ways to correct the current situation and actions to be taken at many levels but, most importantly, a process must be put in place that will allow for thinking outside the box of Congress and political appointees.

It begins with the establishment of a non-political “National Commission,” carefully selected from groups actively involved in working with the national parks. Charged to evaluate and review the current situation and propose needed actions, to cure the present and preserve the future based on the NPS mission.

One task, as a necessary holding action while the commission works is to rank every national park site in terms of its national significance, endangerment, and use. Areas below a certain level would be placed in caretaker status, with most of their funds and staff reassigned to parks with significant problems and needs. All of this to be determined by the National Commission. This action represents one method to achieve protection where needed while the commission works. There are other ways to redistribute funds as well, or for Congress to simply address the shortfalls and properly fund the parks while the commission works.

Another concern of the commission would be how the NPS is funded, managed, and organized, and whether change is needed to assure protection of the treasures. It would seek ways, once parks were prioritized and funds shifted, to overcome and remove the $12 billion backlog of necessary funds for the parks, with parks in caretaker status not reactivated until the backlog was taken care of. Perhaps another Mission 66 program with a 10-year window to resolve the backlog one year at a time might be considered in combination with other actions.

Further consideration must be given regarding how parks are added to the system and the evaluation process used. How many national park areas are appropriate, how are new areas coming into the system, are they properly funded and staffed? What areas, now in the system, should be reevaluated for compliance with new standards? In the future, should sensitive parks or resources be permitted to have carrying capacities as visitation numbers increase, and should certain forms of access be limited?

Parks should have the authority to collect fees and retain those fees within the park and fee systems need to be considered that help support a park. The National Park System should not be an executive agency under the direction of Congress and political appointees at the Department of the Interior. Perhaps something like the Smithsonian Institution, considered unique in the federal establishment, would be a better example of how the National Park System is managed. The Smithsonian is not an executive branch agency and does not exercise regulatory powers, except over its own buildings and grounds. They also manage the nation’s national treasures.

It must be asked if national treasures can be appropriately managed and protected from political interference and decision-making by the Congress and political appointees. It is time to consider new ways and means for protecting and securing the future of our National Park System and for Congress to recognize that change is needed.

There can be no illusion that the processes needed can be accomplished quickly and without upset, but the pretense that all is well with the national parks and change is not needed leads to future reactive decisions assuring the demise and loss of those values so loved by the American people and so needed by the ecosystems, bioregions, and history of our country. Change is happening too quickly in our society and our country which permits more delay and argument over the need for restoration and recovery of our National Park System. Our Living National Treasures need your help, now.

Gil Lusk is a retired National Park Service employee with 35 years of experience, mostly serving as a superintendent of several national parks, including Glacier National Park.

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