Funding cuts are pushing our national parks to the breaking point


I worked for the National Park Service for 41 years, serving at program offices, battlefield sites and larger national parks such as Shenandoah, the Great Smokies and Yosemite. I retired nearly 11 years ago and became an advocate and member of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, where I now serve as chair.

At no point during these 50-plus years has the National Park System been properly funded — and that just isn’t acceptable.

More than five months into the 2024 fiscal year, Congress finally passed several appropriations bills — including funding the National Park Service and other public land agencies. The recently passed bills thankfully helped us avoid yet another full government shutdown.

I appreciate the work of the appropriators to strike a compromise and I am particularly pleased that they rejected the most egregious of the proposed anti-environmental policies (link) that would have inflicted further harm on national parks and public lands, along with their wildlife, as well as our country’s clean air, and water.

However, the unfortunate reality is that the 2024 budget for the National Parks Service is a $150 million reduction from 2023 levels. Last year’s funding was not enough to restore lost staffing levels and now, with more reductions and the pressure of inflation, the chronic problems plaguing the National Park Service will only worsen.

National parks — and the programs and offices that support them — do not have enough staff. Over the years, the number of National Park Service employees available to operate our national parks fully and safely has declined by over 3,000 positions as visitation to national parks has increased.

Between 2012 and 2022, national park staffing dropped by 13 percent while visitation grew by 10 percent. And the budget for the NPS is less than one-fifteenth of one percent of our federal budget. Cost of living increases and inflation absorbed the modest budget increases seen over the years.

National Park Service employees are overworked and underpaid, as parks struggle to sustain basic operations. It’s no wonder that employee morale is so low.

I cannot understand why Congress refuses to invest more in our national parks when they are so important to local economies and the American people. From a lofty perspective, they provide a space of adventure, refuge and enjoyment for millions of Americans. From a practical standpoint, they protect irreplaceable natural and cultural resources and help to tell the stories of our nation’s history. And from a purely economic standpoint, the $3 billion that we invest in national parks provides a $50.3  billion benefit to the nation’s economy and supports  378,400 jobs.

Simply put, national parks, forests, monuments and wildlife refuges all need more funding. Parks and program offices need to hire more staff to protect resources and provide safe and memorable experiences for visitors. The agency needs additional funds to tackle critical repair projects and crumbling infrastructure, address the impacts of climate change and provide additional affordable housing so our parks can hire the staff they need to operate during busy seasons.

Fiscal year 2024 will be difficult for our national parks and public lands. The “do more with less” mode of operation is close to a breaking point. You’ll see more closures of facilities such as campgrounds and visitor centers to save money. Tours and programs will be canceled. Visitors already feel the impact of inadequate budgets — and it’s going to get worse.

It’s way past time for Congress to acknowledge the importance of our national parks and public lands. We urge them to allocate more funding to the National Park System and other land management and environmental protection agencies in 2025.

Time is running out to truly protect our national parks and public lands for future generations.

Phil Francis served the National Park Service for over 40 years and is the chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks.