National Park Week starts this Saturday and continues to the following Sunday. Admission is even free on April 20th.
While it is tempting to celebrate the rightfully natural wonders and scenic beauty of the often named “America’s best idea,” I tend to think of what is the coming future of national parks.
With anticipated cuts of 14% overall to Dept of Interior budget, or nearly $3bn for the NPS alone, the parks are facing a significant shortfall in addition to the $11bn already backlogged needed for repairs to the existing infrastructure.
The cuts come at a time when day use is expanding by leaps and bounds. Exemptions for cuts naturally include oil, mineral, and other forms of energy extraction subsidies and funds. A cynic might compare the current times to the Gilded Age. Perhaps.
Throw in the changing climate and the challenges forced by that change and the future of the NPS could be problematic in many ways.
Some semi-random thoughts on what might be ahead:
- More reliance on volunteers and concessionaires to fill in the void left by budget cuts. I am biased because I make part of my income guiding now in the nearby national parks. But I also realize that part of my income stream is because there is fewer park staff able to lead people on guided hikes that are obviously in demand. As much as I love guiding, I don’t think it should be a privilege just for people with extra money to have well-informed and enthusiastic guides to places within the park. Or to use an analogy, I am not against Uber or Lyft. But I don’t think they should be the only option, either. And I still think we’ll see a privatizing as such things as not only campgrounds, but booths, maintenance staff, and similar support services in the near future. We see “the nose of the camel in the tent” to allow more corporate influence for such things as increased connectivity in the increasingly posh campgrounds or even increased mineral extraction.
- More budget cuts might mean more courting of corporate sponsorship. And that corporate sponsorship manes more influence by corporations on the management of national parks. Something I’ve discussed before. Don’t think so? Look what happened when the NPS tried to ban the sale of disposable water bottles in the park. The pet Congress Critter of a water bottle company went into action. I am not so naive to think all corporate sponsorship is terrible by any means. However, some helpful support can turn into corporate fiat the more funds are accepted and become essential to the operating budget.
- Budget cuts mean raising of fees to make up the shortfall. Of course, the more expensive proposal got kiboshed last year. Give it time. I think the price of admission will dramatically increase. An increasingly affluent user base is the connoisseur of the outdoors. Do we want to make it even more exclusive by a drastic increase in entrance fees? Considering the overall lowering of household income in real dollars versus years past, any park fee increases are felt that much more.
- Of course, it is not doom and gloom. The parks are beautiful and treasured. America tends to swing to extremes. We’ll adjust. Perhaps in the near future, we’ll have the equivalent of the Mission 66 initiative. Under this initiative, the American public felt that the parks are something we need to invest in overall. Something that represents the best of us and what our country means to the world. Our legacy in many ways. It happened once. Maybe it will happen again?
Further reading? An interesting read about the future of the National Park service is Uncertain Path: A Future of the National Parks. Written by an NPS ranger, the book looks over some of the issues discussed above and more, but in further detail. And I suggest reading Wilderness Ethics: Preserving the Spirit of Wildness, too.