The federal government may have avoided another shutdown in December, but America’s national parks are not out of the woods yet.
From daily operations to infrastructure, the U.S. park system suffers from chronic financial undernourishment by the federal government that Congress must address to ensure the parks we cherish will be handed down unimpaired for future generations to enjoy, as well.
National parks are a mere one-thirteenth of 1 percent of the federal budget. Imagine that: One-thirteenth of one penny of each tax dollar that you pay makes Acadia, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon and over 400 national seashores, historic sites, recreational areas and memorials available to the American people.
In 2018, our national parks brought more than $20 billion in direct visitor spending to gateway communities near the national parks. When you add in the goods and services that are supplied, as well as secondary employment at supporting businesses, the total economic output for national parks surpasses $40 billion.
Visitation is robust at our national parks. Last year, the National Park Service tracked more than 318 million visits — up from nearly 275 million a decade ago. In fact, more Americans visit national parks than attend MLB, NBA, NFL, and NHL sporting events combined.
At Acadia, we’ve seen that rising popularity firsthand: Last year, we received nearly 3.5 million visits, a nearly 60 percent increase over the last decade.
Visitors are coming for good reason: Belonging to all Americans, national parks allow us to experience the wild splendor of the outdoors. Acadia’s visitors come for biking, hiking, wildlife, coastal scenery and our beautiful, dark night skies. They keep coming because of the deep personal connection they form with nature and the traditions created with family and friends.
However, parks such as Acadia are ill-equipped to deal with ever-increasing influxes of visitors because federal appropriations have not kept pace. Since 2005, the number of law enforcement rangers at national parks has declined by more than 20 percent, undermining protections for people and fragile natural resources.
Dedicated park staff do the best with what they have, and their efforts are often supplemented by volunteers. But even the most motivated of workers can’t overcome decades of underfunding.
Lack of federal funding has also led to an $11 billion backlog of deferred maintenance projects nationally across the parks. These are road, building and other infrastructure repairs that have been postponed for more than a year due to budget constraints.
If the National Park Service had sufficient funding to hire the basic staff it needs, it would have a better opportunity to address maintenance issues before they escalate. Similarly, if the park system had sufficient numbers of warranted contracting officers, much of that work could be multiplied through the private sector.
For example, Acadia is responsible for more than 200 buildings, 258 miles of roads and 152 miles of trails — assets with a current replacement value of more than $1 billion. That is a massive responsibility for a small staff, much of which is furloughed for part of the year.
With support from Friends of Acadia for the trails, carriage roads and historic buildings, Acadia has done its best to keep up. However, an estimated $65.8 million in projects remains, made more uncertain by our warming climate.
Some relief could be on the way in the form of the proposed Restore Our Parks Act now before Congress, thanks in part to Sen. Angus King (I-Vt.) and colleagues on both sides of the aisle. Given today’s deep political divides, it speaks volumes that this legislation enjoys bipartisan support from nearly 50 co-sponsors in the Senate and over 325 co-sponsors in the House. We urge elected officials to bring this critical legislation to the floor for action.
Last January’s protracted government shutdown hit Acadia hard. It affected dedicated employees, park resources and visitors alike.
Its negative impact also lasted well beyond the five weeks of the shutdown, since the federal hiring process was delayed, resulting in fewer lifeguards, trail crew members and museum staff during the summer. Projects to monitor air quality, endangered bats, and bird species were also affected, while outreach to schools for youth programs was canceled.
These are the stakes — year in and year out. America doesn’t just need the government to be up and running; it needs our elected officials to show vision and to prioritize the needs of the hundreds of millions of people who find inspiration in our national parks.
Short-term funding agreements are quick fixes that don’t really fix much at all. The long-term solution — the only solution — is to provide our national parks with the proper funding to not just survive but to thrive for decades to come.
Polls show that a vast majority of Americans want to see increased funding for national parks. They know that there is no America without our national parks.
Now is the time for Congress to act. Anything less is shortsighted at best. At worst, it’s a failure to deliver for future generations who, in a rapidly changing world, will need the benefits of national parks more than ever.
David MacDonald serves as president and CEO of Friends of Acadia.
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