By Rayann Houghlin
In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson created the National Park Service.[i] This year, the National Park Service (NPS) celebrated its one-hundredth birthday; more accurately, the service turned one hundred a little over one month ago on August 25th, 2016.[ii] In its one hundred years of service, the NPS system has welcomed over 27.5 billion visitors and grown to include over 400 sites throughout the United States.[iii]
These one hundred years have certainly come with their own trials and tribulations, and as the NPS looks to the future and what will hopefully be another one hundred years of service, it is faced with several unique challenges of its own. NPR’s Nathan Rott identified four key issues facing the NPS in the future: climate change, underfunding, overcrowding, and relevancy.[iv]
Of the above, overcrowding is arguably the “best” problem to have. Last year alone the NPS saw over 300 million visitors, breaking its previous visitation record.[v] Certainly, the more visitors a park may attract, the more revenue it may draw in. But, with these visitors also comes greater park maintenance demands and responsibilities for the likely already-stretched-too-thin park staff. Because the NPS is almost perpetually underfunded, dealing with these issues can simply become too much to handle.[vi]
In regards to underfunding, the NPS depends on public money, political support, and community engagement for funding.[vii] Unfortunately, the NPS has been unable to pay its bills for some time now.[viii] The NPS already has over 12 million dollars in deferred maintenance.[ix] But with the federal government narrowly avoiding another shutdown just a few days ago, it doesn’t look as if much money will be heading the NPS’s way any time soon.[x]
This ties in a bit with the relevancy concern as well. The national parks aren’t always accessible to every member of the United States’ population; whether that be for location issues, cost reasons, or other barriers. The majority of visitors to the National Parks are older, white persons.[xi] Most of the NPS work service is made up of white persons.[xii] Meanwhile, the United States now has the most diverse generation in its history.[xiii] If the NPS can’t appeal to a larger demographic, the parks and park system will likely matter less to these generations.
The above issues won’t matter much if there are no parks or sites to protect, however. Because of climate change, the glaciers in Glacier National Park are melting.[xiv] Joshua trees in Joshua National Park are losing viable habitat.[xv] Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado is facing challenges of its own, as well.[xvi] While wildfires are a natural and necessary part of life out west, climate change has caused some of these fires to burn hotter and for longer, causing damage to the historic rock formations throughout the park.[xvii] Park officials hope that being proactive, rather than reactive, will help better preserve Mesa Verde and other national parks for the future.[xviii]
But all of this is not to say that the NPS is only facing challenges. There are exciting ventures to look forward to as well. Specifically, Yosemite National Park is looking at its largest expansion since 1949.[xix] Many parks are implementing outreach programs to attract more diverse visitors.[xx] It’s undeniable that having the national parks at our disposal, to appreciate and to enjoy, is a fantastic resource. Everyone should take advantage of the NPS and visit a national park site, and donate or volunteer your time if you’re able. What better time than now, when it can be considered as a birthday present?
[ii] Nathan Rott, On It’s 100th Anniversary The National Park Service Plans For Future Challenges, National Public Radio (Aug. 25, 2016, 5:08 AM), http://www.npr.org/2016/08/25/491311726/on-its-100th-anniversary-the-national-park-service-plans-for-future-challenges.
[iii] See National Park Service, supra note i; see id. .
[iv] See Rott, supra note ii.
[vii] Nathan Rott, Don't Care About National Parks? The Park Service Needs You To (Mar. 9, 2016, 4:23 PM),
http://www.npr.org/2016/03/09/463851006/dont-care-about-national-parks-the-park-service-needs-you-to [hereinafter Don’t Care About National Parks?].
[viii] See Rott, supra note ii.
[x] Emmarie Huetteman, Congress Approves Spending Bill, Averting Government Shutdown, (Sept. 28, 2016), http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/29/us/politics/congress-shutdown-flint-spending.html?_r=0.
[xi] See Don’t Care About National Parks?, supra note vii.
[xiii] See Rott, supra note ii.
[xiv] Morning Edition: Glacier National Park Gives Montanans A Close View Of Climate Change, National Public Radio (May 6, 2016) http://www.npr.org/2016/05/06/476993975/glacier-national-park-gives-montanans-a-close-view-of-climate-change.
[xv] Lauren Sommer, Planning For The Future Of A Park Where The Trees Have One Name, National Public Radio (Aug. 2, 2016, 5:03 AM), http://www.npr.org/2016/08/02/487938345/planning-for-the-future-of-a-park-where-the-trees-have-one-name.
[xvi] Grace Hood, To Preserve History, A National Park Preps For Climate Change, National Park Service (July 26, 2016, 4:43 AM), http://www.npr.org/2016/07/26/486792360/to-protect-history-a-national-park-preps-for-climate-change.
[xix] Camila Domonoske, Yosemite National Park Grows Toward West In Largest Expansion Since 1949, National Public Radio (Sept. 8, 2016, 7:26 AM), http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/09/08/493081963/yosemite-national-park-grows-toward-west-in-largest-expansion-since-1949.
[xx] See Rott, supra note ii; see Don’t Care About National Parks?, supra note vii.