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One hundred years ago, President Woodrow Wilson, in a forward-thinking move that would be laughed out of congress today, established the National Park Service (NPS), a new bureau within the Department of the Interior, for the purpose of protecting the, then 35, national parks and monuments of the land.

National parks, monuments, recreation areas, and historic sites are America’s crown jewels. Last year they attracted over 300 million visitors from within and outside of the country.

In 2001, NPS funding represented 0.12% of the overall federal budget. By 2014 that percentage had dropped to just 0.069 of the budget.

A bureau that managed 35 entities in 1916 now administers 409 units. Given an expanding treasure to care for with an ever-diminishing budget, our national parks are suffering. In 2010, the NPS employed 22,211 full-time employees spread over 394 units. In six years 15 more park units were added but the workforce decreased by 2,672 employees.

The infrastructure of many older parks is wobbly and in need of repair. In Yosemite sewer lines have broken, spilling sewage into the Merced River. In Shenandoah National Park, three maintenance crews have been consolidated into one to manage road work, plumbing, and carpentry. Yellowstone National Park has a maintenance backlog of over $603 million dollars.

To make up for the congressional funding squeeze, parks raise entrance and user fees, which locks out America’s increasing majority of low-income families. Part of the NPS mandate is “. . . to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”  This does not mean to leave them for the enjoyment of future generations of the rich and famous. The mission is to make the parks accessible to all Americans.

Beyond increased entrance fees, the only other way of coping with budget woes is to solicit funds from benefactors. NPS anticipates raising $170 million dollars during this important centennial year. But philanthropic contributions often come with terms. Bill Gates might contribute generously to the refurbishing of the historic Lake Quinault Lodge in Olympic National Park. But who will pony up to fix the toilets in Yosemite?

Formerly known as The Ahwahnee Hotel; photo by Joe Moore - Valley Public Radio

Formerly known as The Ahwahnee Hotel; photo by Joe Moore – Valley Public Radio

Americans wail about corporate sponsorships that lead to name changes. For example, in my home town, the Boise State Pavilion is lusciously named the Taco Bell Arena. The NPS has eyed the path of donor naming rights. Earlier this year the Ahwahnee Hotel, named for the original Miwok village where it was built, became the mundane Majestic Yosemite Hotel. Curry Village, originally established by David Curry and his wife in 1899, is now Half Dome Village. Those two changes were the result of a complicated legal battle that ensued when one concessionaire was replaced by another. However, the name change created understandable fervor and acrimony and highlights the potential danger of relying too heavily on corporate or philanthropic generosity. I do not relish the notion of Many Glacier Hotel becoming the Starbucks Motel.

  • Have you visited an American National Park?
  • Do you think National Parks are an important part of America?
  • How do you think America should pay for these crucial national assets?
  • Would you support higher taxes for park maintenance?
  • If you would not support higher taxes, what areas of the Federal budget would you squeeze to funnel more dollars to the NPS?

For more information about NPS and the challenges it juggles:
High Country News; for people who care about the West
Donor Naming Rights in U.S. National Parks – Is Brouhaha Justified?
National Parks Foundation