Thoughts on National Parks Week

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.

From Venues Now

From the NPS, 2016.



From the NPS

  • 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?

Chief’s Head in Rocky Mtn National Park

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.


4 Replies to “Thoughts on National Parks Week”

  1. Thanks for the great wake-up article. I was dismayed when I went to Yellowstone, and the traffic was heavier than downtown on Saturday night.

  2. Once again, you make me thankful that I live (and mostly hike) in New York State, which was wise enough to read wilderness preservation into the state constitution. “The lands of the state, now owned or hereafter acquired, constituting the forest preserve as now fixed by law, shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed.”

    The conservation department can be and has been underfunded, the law is enforced with more or less strictness, and it’s surely not perfect, but the legislature can’t destroy it all with a stroke of a pen. Much less can the executive do so.

    New York appears to be relatively safe from radical corporatists. One of my greatest fears for the great parks that are New York’s crown jewels is that Uncle Sam will seize state lands under eminent domain in order to destroy their constitutional protection. It’s already been held that the US Government can seize State assets in eminent domain, and that doing so completely extinguishes any State interest. The State interest is not restored if the Federal government resells the land.

    As a result, for instance, the only parts of the Pacific shoreline in California that do not belong to the State of California are those that were formerly on now-closed naval bases, resold to developers. This anomaly created an inflated value for the shoreline, through the artificial scarcity of having the only truly private beaches in the state. In order to restore the protection, California would have to compensate the new landowner for the inflated value, while it was paid no such premium when the Federal government first seized the land.

    It is widely suspected that there are some large parcels of New York State land for which natural gas concerns are lobbying the Federal government for a similar maneuver – seize the land for some fictitious purpose, abandon the purpose and resell it. (Or simply announce that natural gas production is a public good, and use that to justify eminent domain!) Since some of New York’s prime wilderness lies atop the Marcellus shale bed, the idea actually is plausible. (If true, how is this not a constitutional crisis?)

    To me, out-and-out destruction is an even greater threat than Disneyfication, particularly since in the case of New York, it can be ignored by the other 49 states as Someone Else’s Problem.

    Another data point. During one of the government shutdowns, the NPS bureaucrats made noises that New York would have to close Harriman because the AT (an NPS asset) runs through it. The only thing is that Uncle Sam never purchased a corridor over New York State land, nor even negotiated a formal easement. The AT is just there. New York’s reply was basically, “see you in court!” AT maintenance, and the AT corridor where Federally owned, were formally shut down, but the corridor shutdown was never enforced, since the Federal staff who would do so were furloughed, and the county sheriffs had no interest in enforcing it. The only effect was the suspension of maintenance, and even that was questioned since the AT mostly shares treadway with other trails and woods roads, and there was certainly a credible assertion that the custodians of those ways had the right to maintain them.

      1. In Utah’s defense, New York doesn’t have 70%+ of its land in goverment hands, only about 20%. ‘Forever wild’ might not be so popular if the government were every farmer’s landlord.

        There have been attempts to amend the state constitution to eliminate ‘forever wild.’ They have all been roundly defeated. There was also an attempt by the Federal government to create an ‘Adirondack National Park’ in 1967. The attempt was wildly unpopular and went nowhere, but prompted an agonizing reappraisal of the governance of the region and the creation of a State Land Master Plan that made great changes in management – mostly for the better. The fact that nearly everyone loves to hate the Adirondack Park Agency is an indicator that they’re successfully steering a middle course among competing interests.

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