But 100 years after Woodrow Wilson created the National Park Service to conserve the country’s natural and historic wonders and “leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations,” it’s not all a celebration. The agency, which has an annual budget of roughly $3 billion, has a maintenance backlog of more than $11 billion. The nonprofit National Park Foundation is trying to raise $350 million as part of a Centennial Campaign to help shore up the cash-strapped agency. The park service itself is considering relaxing some of its sponsorship rules in an effort to generate more revenue.
The Post spoke recently with National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis about how officials are trying to tackle budget concerns, how climate change is likely to alter treasured landscapes in coming decades and how the agency can attract a more diverse cross-section of Americans to national parks as it heads into its second century.
The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity:
Washington Post: So, how is the National Park Service doing at 100?
Jonathan Jarvis: I think the National Park Service is actually doing pretty well. We looked at the centennial in 2016 as an opportunity, and not something to be missed. We wanted to take advantage of it, to celebrate our 100 years of public service, conservation and preservation. But also, to really use it as an opportunity to connect and build the next generation of park visitors, supporters and advocates. So we launched a very strategically designed public awareness campaign, which I think is turning out to be quite successful.
WP: You’ve said the parks service owns 5,000 miles of roads, 1,400 bridges and 17,000 buildings. There’s a huge backlog of maintenance issues. Is the country taking care of its national parks?
JJ: I think we could be taking better care of them. We’ve been in a budgetary decline for at least a decade. In fiscal [year] 2016, Congress was pretty generous to us. It was the best budget we’ve had in our history, but we’re still only receiving about half of what we really need to even stay even with our maintenance backlog.
When I came on as director [in 2009], we were witnessing a number of issues, [such as] the maintenance backlog. We had traditionally retained strong support on both sides of the aisle, [but] started to see this sort of separation happening, and we were being lumped in with bad government. There are plenty of people on both sides of the aisle that I honestly know, no matter what their political spectrum is, they love the work of National Park Service, they love their national parks. But we were sort of getting thrown under the bus.
We [also] were seeing really an unrepresentative visitation that no longer represented the demographics of the nation. The core base of support for the national parks was older, whiter, richer.
WP: You’re saying that who visits the parks changed over time?
No, it hadn’t changed. That’s the problem. It pretty much stayed the same. It was something I’d been observing for the past 30 years. This next generation, which is much more urban, more diverse, much more technologically connected, were not represented in the park visitation.
When I worked in California, I lived in the Bay area, and I rode public transportation to work every day. As a white male, I was in [the minority]. Then I’d get in my car and drive across the Central Valley of California, which has huge Hispanic populations, and I’d drive into the gates of Yosemite, and it would change. Older white people, or foreign. So there was diversity, but almost all the diversity was international, not domestic.
That lack of diversity hit me every time I’d go to Sequoia & Kings Canyon [National Park]. Not so much at Santa Monica or Golden Gate. I saw it over and over again. I looked at that and thought, “That’s a problem.” There’s a segment of the American people that are not participating in this extraordinary resource that is theirs. It belongs to them. Am I doing something that’s causing that? Or am I not doing something?
WP: So how do you get that younger, more diverse group to come?
JJ: That’s what the centennial is. That’s the whole point. We launched a very tailored, strategic, multifaceted effort to connect that next generation. There will be, I think, a turn. It won’t happen overnight. These things don’t change that quickly. But that’s the ultimate goal.
We’ve been bringing to the president specific, new national monuments that represent the contributions of minorities and women. We’ve brought Cesar Chavez [National Monument], Harriet Tubman [Underground Railroad National Monument], Col. Charles Young [Buffalo Soldiers National Monument], Fort Monroe [National Monument], Pullman [National Monument], Belmont-Paul [Women’s Equality National Monument], Stonewall [Inn].
Do you see a pattern here? We’re filling in the gaps in the system to be more representative of the minorities in the nation. Not only in the places we manage, but also the places we designate under the National Historic Landmarks program.
WP: You talked about awareness. Everyone does know Yellowstone and Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. What do you think most Americans don’t know about the national parks that they should?
JJ: They all know those, and they think that’s pretty much the extent — that all the national parks are out West, and they all have bison and moose and grizzly bears and waterfalls and rock and ice. They have no idea the Statue of Liberty, the Lincoln Memorial, Gettysburg, Selma-to-Montgomery trail, Independence Hall, Cape Cod National Seashore, Cape Hatteras — are all managed by the National Park Service.
You could probably walk down the street in Washington, D.C., and ask someone if they’ve been in a national park recently, and they’ll say no. Then you can say, “Have you been to the Lincoln [Memorial]”?
WP: What do you think the next 100 years holds for the parks service? What are going to be the main challenges?
JJ: Climate change is going to drive a lot of change in the national parks. A lot of our big, national parks are in extreme environments — high elevation, desert, Alaska, coastline.
These are the places that we’re already seeing the effects of climate change, and they’re going to be accelerated in these environments, with sea level rise, storm surge, thermokarsting in the Arctic, fires in the Sierra, drought all over. It’s going to upset the paradigm upon which we’ve been managing for 100 years. That’s going to be a big challenge, and frankly, we haven’t figured it out. We’re still working on it.
WP: What are other examples of where you are seeing effects of [climate change], and what are ways you are trying to adapt?
JJ: The poster child, of course, is Glacier [National Park]. We anticipated within 20 to 25 years, the glaciers will be gone in Glacier National Park. Certainly, the storm surges we’ve seen in New England with Hurricane Sandy was a wake-up call to the importance of what’s now, sometimes inarticulately, called “green” infrastructure … The importance of sand dunes and coastal barriers — wetlands, sea grass beds — these things are enormously important to protecting a coastline when you get this kind of sea level rise.
We’re beginning to talk about, if the ocean rises a meter in the next 100 years or so, what’s the next thing that’s inland? We’re starting to plan for that, to think about what are the natural features that could be utilized to provide some protection. We’re beginning to incorporate planning for climate change into all of the park plans … [and accept] that some species we may lose, and new species may arrive because they are driven by climate change.
We’re still going to take a very precautionary approach to this kind of stuff. But we really have to start to incorporate that into what we’re doing.
WP: Are there other main challenges you see in the decades ahead? As the country grows, is overcrowding of the parks a concern?
JJ: I’ve never been one to think that crowding of parks are particularly [bad]. Crowding of a national park is an experiential problem. If you don’t like a crowd, then you probably shouldn’t go to Yosemite on the Fourth of July. Ecologically, it’s irrelevant. Absolutely irrelevant. No effect on the ecology. Also, we have a tendency, as American citizens, to dislike crowds. But you go around the world, and people have a different view of crowding than we do.
We also tend to put judgment calls on a photograph. You show a photograph of a mountain lake in the middle of the wilderness, with nobody in it, that’s actually a negative to certain people. They are like, “Why on earth would I go there? There’s nobody there.” That makes me very uncomfortable to do that. But we’ve been doing this for a long time, and we still do it over and over again. It’s actually a disincentive to certain people.
The parks service is pretty good at managing crowds. We’ve done it a lot. As long as we get enough funding to provide the basic support for that … we can handle it pretty well. … There’s an upper limit at some point, certainly on certain resources. But there’s a lot of public land out there. A lot of opportunity.
WP: Looking ahead the next 100 years, can — and should — the park system continue to grow? How will it look different 100 years from now?
JJ: I think it will grow, in spite of calls for it to stop growing. Congress has continued to add units to the national parks system on a pretty regular basis. They call upon us to study areas — frankly, we report negatively on the majority of the ones we’re asked to look at, for a variety of reasons. They’re not feasible, they’re not suitable, they’re not nationally significant.
The other thing to think about is, history doesn’t stop. After 9/11, guess who got [the] Flight 93 [National Memorial]? There will be more wars; there’ll be more tragedies; there’ll be more changes in our society. They almost always turn to the parks service to tell that story.
And there are pieces of history that are not well told. Reconstruction is a big gap in the American narrative, that we feel needs to be told and is not told well. We’re on the hunt right now to look for a Reconstruction site. There are still pieces of the Civil Rights movement that we haven’t told. Obviously, LGBT is a story that had not been told, and Stonewall is a perfect example of a place that really changed the way we think about LGBT rights in this nation.
WP: Anything else you’d want people to know about the parks at 100?
JJ: I think the future of the parks service is going to be a combination of financial investments. It’ll be appropriations – we’re always going to need appropriations. There’s going to be fees. But I’m always going to resist increasing fees to the point it begins to eliminate the public access. We should always artificially keep the fees low to allow the public to participate in what is their resource. There are some things I’d like to change. The senior pass — $10 for life — is ridiculously underpriced.
On the business side of the house, the private sector that provides services [in the parks] — I think we are not getting a fair return on that. We’re seeking some changes to legislation to allow the taxpayer to get a better return on the investment of private sector operations in parks. Concessions is a billion dollar industry, and we get about 4 percent, without any reinvestment in the infrastructure.
And corporate sponsorship and private philanthropy. That’s been a little bit of a dust-up in the Post in the last couple weeks [about corporate sponsorships]. We are not selling out. We need to be state-of-the-art and sophisticated about it, and really smart about how we engage corporate America. I don’t see them as evil. But I do know they want to sell product. We’re not going to allow the naming or the product endorsement or any of that. But, there can be positive association with us, and that’s okay as long as it’s done tastefully and appropriately.