National Parks are at their breaking point. You’ve seen the images; visitors lined up to hike at Zion National Park, heavy traffic at Yellowstone National Park and big crowds in Arches National Park. Although our COVID-19 infection rates continue to climb, visitors are still flocking to national parks.
Collectively, we have spent over 70 years managing some of America’s most incredible national parks. And during our time as superintendents at parks such as Yosemite, Point Reyes and the Channel Islands, we often had to grapple with the difficult task of balancing the visitor experience with the protection of irreplaceable resources. This job is not getting any easier.
While we can attribute lockdown fatigue from the pandemic for some of the high visitations this year, the truth is that visitation to parks has been on the rise for years. In 2019, before the pandemic, the National Park System (NPS) saw a 20 percent uptick in visitors compared to 2013.
Meanwhile, the NPS continues to cope with a loss of staff capacity. There are just not enough employees working in national parks — or the program offices that support the parks — to effectively manage our irreplaceable resources and ensure the best possible visitor experience.
Parks across the country have taken a number of steps to reduce overcrowding and protect resources, such as encouraging the use of public transportation or instituting a reservation system. But there are other solutions that can help address overcrowding and ensure the protection of our resources while providing for a meaningful visitor experience.
Protecting new lands by adding units to the NPS — and ensuring they have adequate funding — would give visitors more destinations to consider.
And the Biden administration has launched their America the Beautiful Plan, a decade-long challenge to conserve, connect and restore the lands, waters and wildlife upon which we all depend. Projects funded through the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA), will likely align with the goals of the administration’s conservation plan.
Some of the funds from GAOA will provide much-needed maintenance for critical facilities and infrastructure in our national parks. Other funds, such as those from the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), will help to expand our national parks, increase public access and ensure that lands within our parks aren’t at risk of incompatible development, which could harm scenic views, water quality and wildlife habitat.
While these are good funding sources and plans, we need to ensure that our existing national parks, and any new units added to the NPS, are adequately funded on an annual basis so they can hire the staff necessary to protect resources and provide a safe experience for visitors, even as crowds continue to grow. All national parks need a significant increase in annual appropriations to return visitor services and park protections to the professional standards that are necessary to preserve these cherished public lands for the future.
We urge Congress to support the 2022 president’s budget request, which calls for critical increases in operational funding for the NPS. Let’s protect the parks we have, in addition to considering other lands in need of protection. Our national parks are America’s greatest idea, and we need to ensure that all Americans can enjoy these treasured spaces for generations to come.
Russell Gallipeau served the National Park Service for 40 years and worked in seven national parks ranging from the Everglades to Wrangell-St. Elias and the Channel Islands. Don Neubacher had a 36-year career in the National Park Service that included appointments at Point Reyes National Seashore, Glacier Bay National Park, Denver Service Center, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and Yosemite National Park. They currently sit on the Executive Council of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks.