Why America's National Parks Need Help

  • March 20, 2017
  • by Don Belt

America’s National Parks: Upkeep Required

After the Fact Podcast Episode 4

Editor’s Recommendation

A Pilgrimage to Every National Park—in 1 Year

by Conor Knighton

Winter 2017

Growing up in southeastern Pennsylvania, David Ruth got hooked on history early.

It may have been hereditary: His father and grandfather were avid Civil War buffs whose dinner conversations often drifted back to the 1860s and the momentous battles that had raged nearby—Gettysburg, Harpers Ferry, Antietam. As a kid, Ruth remembers poring over American Heritage books about the Civil War, staring for hours at battle paintings and richly illustrated battlefield maps. It was, he says, “kind of an obsession.”

When Ruth was 10, his father, who was an Air National Guard officer, drove him to Virginia, where the two of them spent several days traipsing through Civil War battlefields in the rolling countryside around Richmond, the Confederate capital—from the earthworks of Cold Harbor, where Grant and Lee faced off in 1864, to the fortified landscapes of Petersburg, where a 10-month siege by Union forces finally broke through to Richmond in the spring of 1865.

Nearly five decades later, Ruth still walks these historic battlefields—now as superintendent of Richmond National Battlefield Park, an archipelago of 14 park units encompassing 3,600 acres of historic buildings, grounds, open lands, and park facilities, which collectively preserve and exhibit the bloodiest chapter in American history to nearly 100,000 visitors a year.

Ruth is proud of what the National Park Service (NPS) has done here—the public lectures, the living history programs, and the grass-roots and donor support for acquisitions such as Shelton House, an 18th-century farmhouse, still standing, where Patrick Henry, then 18, married his childhood sweetheart, Sarah Shelton, in 1754.

National Parks

An ice cave within Root Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska. (Noppawat Tom Charoensinphon/Getty Images)

More than a century later, in 1864, the house was overrun by the Union Army moving on Richmond, and for a few days in May 1864, the two-story house was used as a Union field headquarters. General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate artillery, dug in at nearby Totopotomoy Creek, struck the house more than 50 times, but it never burned. Through it all, women and children of the Shelton family huddled in the basement.

“This house has an incredible story to tell about the Civil War and Virginia farm life in the 18th and 19th centuries,” says Ruth, gesturing to the collection of antique nails, ammunition, woodwork, letters, and other artifacts recovered from the site. “We have plenty of historical documentation, and we’ve even got rooms full of furniture that may date to the Civil War.”

No one doubts the value of properties such as the Shelton House, which remind us of who we are as a nation and inspire a younger generation to learn the lessons of the American past.

The challenge, however, is to preserve them. Ruth estimates that it will cost about $265,000 to stabilize and restore Shelton House and open it safely to the public.

That amount pales alongside the $13 million in other “deferred” maintenance (defined by the NPS as necessary work on roads, bridges, trails, campgrounds, buildings, and physical assets delayed for at least a year) that Richmond battlefield park has had to postpone over the past few decades. The long to-do list includes everything from building repair and expansion to the clearing of storm debris from trails and landscapes. The park doesn’t have the money to pay for it—any of it.

Yet compared with other units in the National Park System, Richmond has little to complain about. A hundred miles to the north, Shenandoah National Park is staring at a maintenance backlog of $90 million, half of it for road repairs, while the deferred maintenance at Great Smoky Mountains National Park has soared to $232 million.

National Parks

Tinted with autumn, a mountain stream flows through Great Smoky Mountains National Park. (Dean Fikar/Getty Images)

The iconic parks of the western U.S. lag even further behind: Grand Canyon ($372 million), Glacier ($180 million), and Yosemite ($555 million) lose ground every year to the backlog—while Yellowstone’s maintenance bill is approaching $640 million. And on the National Mall, America’s “front yard,” the NPS is facing deferred maintenance costs of nearly a billion dollars, which includes structural repair of the White House, the Tidal Basin, and the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials.

Nationwide, it adds up to the National Park Service facing a maintenance deficit of nearly $12 billion.

Author Wallace Stegner wrote that the “national parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American... they reflect us at our best.” He was right, and as the NPS enters its second century, Pew, with support from philanthropist Lyda Hill, is raising awareness of the parks’ deferred maintenance needs and encouraging Congress to increase funding to address them. The effort is meant to ensure the parks remain accessible to future generations—and remain places of natural grandeur and historic treasures, as well as economic engines that boost communities around the nation.

Even with its maintenance challenges, the NPS marked its centennial in 2016 by welcoming some 325 million visitors to the parks, a record number for the third consecutive year.

In 2016, Congress passed, and President Barack Obama signed into law, the National Park Service Centennial Act. A key provision of the law establishes the Centennial Challenge Fund, a program that matches private donations with federal dollars and directs that the monies be used to address deferred maintenance projects. The fund has the potential to generate $50 million annually. 

“That was movement in the right direction, but more needs to be done. Congress needs to step up, and we also need to be facilitating more public-private collaboration,” says Marcia Argust, director of Pew’s restore America’s parks program, citing the enormity of the maintenance backlog.

National Parks

Morning breaks over the boulder-strewn coast of Acadia National Park in Maine. (Sascha Kilmer/Getty Images)

What’s clear is that the backlog has grown considerably for more than a decade and that the NPS is struggling to keep pace.

“The problem is not poor fiscal management by the park service,” says Denise Ryan, who served as NPS deputy director for congressional and external relations until January 2017. “It’s a lack of adequate funding from Congress for the service to fulfill its mission. The number of visitors to the parks is rising every year, and maintenance costs are skyrocketing at the same time. And yet National Park Service budgets have been more or less flat since 2010. Do the math.”

As a nation, we’ve been here before. In fact, the situation was even more dire in the mid-1950s, when the National Park System, 40 years after its founding and only a decade removed from an all-consuming war, had been largely forgotten—and starved of funding by a Congress more concerned about the USSR than the NPS.

Visitors to the parks back then registered a litany of complaints: blocked trails, trash-strewn parking lots, long lines, overgrown buildings, and a general lack of services and information. In 1953, historian and author Bernard DeVoto visited 15 parks, took note of the run-down facilities, and proclaimed in his popular column for Harper’s Magazine: “Let’s Close the National Parks.”

“The crisis is now in sight,” DeVoto wrote. “Homeopathic measures will no longer suffice; thirty cents here and a dollar-seventy-five there will no longer keep the national park system in operation.

“Therefore only one course seems possible. Let us, as a beginning, close Yellowstone, Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, and Grand Canyon National Parks—close and seal them, assign the Army to patrol them … [holding them] in trust for a more enlightened future.”

National Parks

With its haunted landscapes and historic structures, Richmond Battlefield National Park preserves Shelton House, an 18th-century farmhouse commandeered by the Union Army in 1864 that needs $265,000 worth of repairs. The entire park faces a deferred maintenance backlog of $13 million. (Julia Rendleman for The Pew Charitable Trusts)

DeVoto’s essay caught the attention of Conrad Wirth, a veteran of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps who was serving as director of the NPS. Sensing opportunity in the chaos, Wirth conceived a bold, 10-year program, dubbed Mission 66, to dramatically restore the national parks in time for the 50th anniversary of the NPS in 1966.

Wirth presented Mission 66 to President Dwight Eisenhower in 1955, along with a request for 10 years of guaranteed funding to free the program from the burden of yearly appropriations. Wirth asked for an astonishing sum—$900 million, the equivalent of $8 billion in 2017 dollars. To Wirth’s surprise, President Eisenhower enthusiastically agreed, launching a transformation of the National Park System through the most ambitious building and renovation program in its history.

The timing was perfect. In the late 1950s, millions of American families were striking out on the country’s new interstate highway system, with more and more making national parks their destination. Wirth made sure that they were greeted by friendly and well-informed park rangers, sophisticated signage, new roads and parking lots, well-marked hiking trails, and a system of distinct, midcentury modern visitor centers. By 1966, America’s National Park System was a source of national pride, and one of the most respected institutions in the country.

Fifty years later, many of the buildings and improvements that were brand new in 1966 are still in service. Not surprisingly, the effect today isn’t quite as impressive.

At Richmond National Battlefield Park, for example, a number of visitor centers and facilities dating to Mission 66 are on the maintenance list, in urgent need of repair or renovation.

National Parks

At the end of an overgrown road in Everglades National Park, where there's a maintenance backlog of $78 million. (David Guttenfelder/National Geographic/Getty Images)

According to Superintendent Ruth, those projects include the expansion of parking lots originally designed to accommodate family station wagons—and too small for the surging crowds and giant tour buses that visit the park today. Until funding is provided, “we just patch things together and hope for the best,” he says. “We’re trying to be creative, but the yellow caution lights are definitely flashing.”

Like many superintendents, Ruth works with a number of private donors, corporate partners, and grass-roots organizations to address needed repairs in the park—a recognition of the reality of today’s difficult budgetary climate that has the NPS looking at creative partnerships to help reduce maintenance needs. 

Help from Congress may yet come, however, if repairing the nation’s infrastructure becomes a priority and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle rally to the cause. Americans cherish their national parks, the thinking goes, and restoring America’s birthright is a matter of patriotic duty. Is America ready for a remake of Mission 66?

What could make that a reality is the fact that the parks have enjoyed a long tradition of bipartisan support in Congress. In the House of Representatives, prominent voices include Representative Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) as well as Representative Rob Bishop (R-UT), who sponsored the National Park Service Centennial Act last year.

In the Senate, supporters include Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Rob Portman (R-OH), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), and Mark Warner (D-VA). They have expressed a willingness, as Sen. Portman says, to “work in a bipartisan way to find additional funding to reduce the backlog.”

“It is crucial that national park facilities be kept safe and accessible,” says Sen. Warner. “In addition to protecting some of our nation’s most awe-inspiring land and historic sites, our National Park System serves as an important economic engine nationally and in local communities.”

National Park Service data indicate that every tax dollar invested in the agency generates $10 to the U.S. economy. The national parks, funded by $2.6 billion in federal dollars, created 295,000 jobs and contributed $32 billion to the national economy in 2015, including an estimated $17 billion in communities around the parks. A Pew analysis also estimates that tackling the $12 billion maintenance backlog in the parks would create up to 130,000 jobs.

And, as Pew’s Argust points out, “These would be American jobs. American jobs to help restore our parks and help local communities—it’s hard to beat that.”

National Parks

Built in 1895, the Atlanta childhood home of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was shuttered for repairs in 2016 after a wooden floor sagged as a tour group passed through. Part of the larger Martin Luther King National Historic Site, the King family home was repaired in time for MLK Day 2017—yet a maintenance backlog of some $10 million remains. (Walter Bibikow/Getty Images)

Such an effort would transcend economics, of course.

“I’m a huge fan of the national parks—have been since I was young,” said Caroline Coe, a cheerful, curly-haired soul in running shoes with binoculars around her neck. She was shepherding her 2-year-old grandson, Oliver, around the Richmond National Battlefield Park headquarters, a relic Confederate arms factory along the Richmond riverfront, on a crisp winter day.

A few years ago, Coe and her family toured Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming—a park she’d visited before—and were “stunned” by what they found. “I couldn’t believe the crowds,” she said. “It was a crazy scene, with huge groups of tourists, including hundreds from China, pouring into the park. The pressure on the facilities was intense, and Yellowstone was looking a little sad, to be honest. I can’t imagine how much it costs to keep the parks functioning, even at the most basic level.”

Informed of the maintenance backlog facing Yellowstone and the parks in general, Coe thought for a moment.

“The federal government needs to step up to fund the parks in a way that America deserves,” she said. “These are the national parks, after all—our natural heritage, our pride and joy. Our national parks are just plain sacred.”

On that point, most Americans probably agree. Like all good ideas, America’s “best idea,” the national parks, won’t live on without nurturing and more than a little support.