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BY PHIL FRANCIS, OPINION CONTRIBUTOR — 12/19/20

As we begin to close the book on 2020 and start a new year, it’s a good time to reflect on where we’ve been and where we need to go.

I served our country and the American people in the National Park Service (NPS) for over 40 years, working in parks across the country. I’ve seen administrations come and go — but the past four years have been particularly hard on our NPS.

We have watched the mission of the NPS become politicized and its employees used as political pawns. The Trump administration failed to nominate and have confirmed by the Senate a director of the NPS — something that has never happened in the over 100-year history of the NPS. Many senior leadership and superintendent positions also remained vacant throughout the administration’s four years, leaving NPS employees with no idea who was in charge, or how long their acting leaders would be in place.

Nowhere is the disregard for NPS employees more obvious than in the Trump administration’s delay in closing our national parks at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and their requirement that our national parks reopen without adequately protecting the health and safety of park employees, volunteers, concessionaires and residents in gateway communities from those who disregard public health directives. And the administration’s continued refusal to disclosethe number of employees infected with the COVID-19 virus and the parks in which they work is both terrifying and dangerous.

As the Biden transition team begins to plan for their time in office, we urge the president-elect and his incoming administration to select leaders for our NPS who can build up a demoralized workforce and correct the mistakes of the past.

There must be an emphasis on good stewardship of our natural and cultural resources. This means reestablishing the NPS as a global leader in understanding and fighting climate change. It means protecting our parks from oil and gas leasing and development on or near national parks and public lands. And it means creating a fair and transparent process to ensure that the deferred maintenance needs at parks are addressed and full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund will go to the highest-priority land acquisition needs.

Visitors to every unit of the NPS deserve world-class service from a highly trained and thriving workforce that reflects the diversity of our country. But national parks across the country do not have enough staff to address park needs and welcome record numbers of visitors. Our parks need an annual appropriation that allows them to hire enough staff — and a diverse staff — to offer a safe, educational and enjoyable visitor experience while ensuring the protection of irreplaceable park resources.

It remains to be seen what long-term impacts the administration’s actions will have on our national parks, as revised regulations affecting endangered species, migratory birds, clean air and clean water, along with a host of others, are still tied up in the courts. But it is time to restore the NPS to the proud agency it has been for over a century and truly fulfill its mission: to preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the NPS for the enjoyment, education and inspiration of this and future generations.

The pandemic will not last forever. And we must ensure that our parks and our people are protected and cared for, and ready to welcome visitors when it’s safe for all of us to get out there and explore all our national parks have to offer. We look forward to a brighter future.

Phil Francis spent over 40 years with the National Park Service, retiring as superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway. He currently serves as the chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks.