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|Greater government funding — and the pandemic — have encouraged visitors to the big national parks. Above, a line of vehicles waiting to enter Yellowstone in the summer of 2015. Photo: National Park Service/Jim Peaco. Click to enlarge.|
Backgrounder: Parks and Complications — Planning Stories Around Our Nation’s Green Spaces
By Joseph A. Davis
For the U.S. National Park System, it is the best of times, it is the worst of times.
The good news is that the big 2022 omnibus appropriations bill President Biden just signed has plenty of money for the parks.
The bad news is that it’s still not enough to solve all their problems — and that may mean more fees, more reservations and more selfie stations.
Summarizing the state of the parks is a daunting job for any journalist. After all, people who get in their RV to go camping may head for a real national park, or anything from state and county parks to lakeshores and seashores, national forests, historic sites and even the occasional wildlife refuge. So simply reporting on “national parks” doesn’t cover it.
Not only are there 63 national parks. There are actually 423 units in the National Park System. The ones that aren’t officially parks may be battlegrounds, historic sites, lakeshores, scenic trails, parkways, monuments and the like.
The National Park Service manages all of them. Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service manages the 567 national wildlife refuges, and the U.S. Forest Service manages the 155 national forests and 20 national grasslands and the features and campgrounds therein.
Sometimes we get lazy (or tired) and just say “parks.” But the difference matters because the rules, management and funding of each of these kinds of conservation units differs. This makes reporting on them harder.
Best idea, or worst?
Not everybody agrees with Wallace Stegner and Ken Burns’ belief that national parks are “America’s best idea.” Yes, because they are iconic, parks have huge symbolic meaning. They embody our love for nature, our reverence for beauty and biodiversity, our sense of national identity, and our love for freedom and open space.
But for some Americans, they embody something to be scorned, going back before former President Trump and even before James G. Watt became Interior secretary in 1981. To the “Sagebrush Rebellion” faction, often found out West where so much land is federally held, adding land to the federal conservation system (especially national parks) was anathema.
It was a very big deal when Congress in 2020 passed
(and Donald Trump signed) the Great American Outdoors Act.
It was surprisingly bipartisan — in a bitterly partisan era.
So it was a very big deal when Congress in 2020 passed (and Donald Trump signed) the Great American Outdoors Act, or GAOA. It was surprisingly bipartisan — in a bitterly partisan era. One of the many things it tried to do was to clear the “maintenance backlog” in the National Park System. It also seemed to end for a while the perennial debate and deadlock over parks funding. (Even if it didn’t really.)
The linchpin of the GAOA was the dedication of $1.9 billion a year for five years to deferred park maintenance. The total, $9.5 billion, was near a common low-end estimate of deferred maintenance in the National Park System alone — park advocates put that number closer to $12 billion. The National Park Service, or NPS, had it closer to $14 billion.
Congress spread this money among the NPS, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Indian Education. The money is to come from a fund fed by no more than 50% of federal revenues from oil, gas and coal. The amount actually appropriated each year would be subject to Congress’ discretion.
Find further background in this Congressional Research Service report on NPS FY2022 appropriations and an Interior Department budget brief.
Conservation in a time of COVID
The other major achievement of the GAOA was reauthorization of the Land & Water Conservation Fund, or LWCF, “in perpetuity” (meaning until Congress repeals it).
Passed in 1965, the LWCF had been a bone of contention for years. The key difference with this fund was that it was intended for acquisition of land or easements — not just in national parks, but in other conservation categories as well. This made it more of a target for the Sagebrush types who opposed “locking up” more federal land.
It is funded mostly by federal revenues from offshore drilling. That mechanism often worked as a political balance between the proponents of extraction and conservation. But over the years, Congress formed the bad habit of not spending it all and then raiding the fund for other projects.
As Congress grew more partisan, it became difficult to even reauthorize the LWCF Act. So authorizing it permanently was a big step — and even bigger was its mandate for full, permanent funding at a level of $900 million a year, essentially an unraidable mandatory appropriation.
Then came the pandemic and big aid bills in Congress to offset its recessionary effects. Still more money was put into play by the “bipartisan infrastructure bill.” Some highway projects related to parks will be funded this way.
But other parts of the progressive vision were relegated to the “Build Back Better” bill, which seems permanently stalled. Young progressive activists still haven’t given up on things like the Civilian Climate Corps, although the odds of getting it as a standalone bill or an executive action are iffy.
The pandemic, it turns out, had another effect:
Sending hordes of visitors to the parks ... [which]
turned to all kinds of mechanisms to manage the crowding.
The pandemic, it turns out, had another effect: Sending hordes of visitors to the parks.
The tightness of lockdowns depressed visitor counts in 2020. But when things opened up in 2021, visitation became a problem, in part because experts said COVID-19 was less transmissible in the outdoors.
Few people wanted to get on airplanes — but driving to a park in your family RV seemed safer. So visitation numbers at many parks were very high that season, although less famous parks still had lower visitation.
Parks turned to all kinds of mechanisms to manage the crowding: reservation requirements, higher admission fees and stay limits, for example.
This is where the selfie stations come in. It turns out so many people wanted wild selfies as trophies of their wilderness experience that safety became a problem. The selfie stations were a way of guiding tourists into safe vantage points — and likely saving wear-and-tear on vulnerable paths and landscapes. Sometimes redwood made them longer lasting and rustic looking.
Are the new funding levels enough?
The “bipartisan infrastructure bill,” which did pass in 2021, included some funding for green alternative transport in national parks. Some of the road repair money probably will end up in parks as well.
In the end, though, more money will not solve all the problems in the parks. The high visitation is focused in the charismatic “brand name” parks like Yosemite, Grand Teton and Yellowstone. So, it turns out, is much of the project funding.
Kurt Repanshek, who edits the nonprofit publication National Parks Traveler, calls this a “funding imbalance.” (By the way, The Traveler — and its accompanying podcast — is a good place to get fair, informed and accurate information about the park system.)
The question remains: Once the five years of GAOA funding have been spent, will a new backlog of deferred maintenance projects start accumulating?
The parks have certainly evolved since Yellowstone (the first of them) was created 150 years ago. But the issues the parks will face in future years may be more daunting.
Climate change is one of the biggest challenges. What happens to Glacier National Park when the ice melts? As the seas inexorably rise, Assateague Island National Seashore is being resculpted to help preserve coastal ecosystems — not just from surf, tides and sea level rise, but from human parking.
Drought, wildfire and invasive species will present other challenges at national parks. In 10 or 20 years, will you be able to recharge your electric vehicle at a national park campsite? Will park ranger interpreters be able to survive the culture wars over American history?
[Editor’s Note: For more about reporting on national parks, see SEJournal TipSheets, “Covering 'America’s Best Idea' — National Park Stories Near You,” “Maintenance Backlog a Pothole on Road to Parks Consensus” and “Grazing on Public Lands Still a Source of Controversy … and Stories.” And be sure to keep up with national parks-related headlines from EJToday and SEJ.org with this search.]
Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 7, No. 12. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.