On my recent visit to the World War II and Vietnam Veterans memorials, those traditions converged: I caught up with war veterans and others who were taking the time to explore, reflect and learn. A Vietnam veteran from Nebraska remarked that he was glad the parks and memorials are mostly free; I reminded him that they’re supported by our taxes. My new friend mentioned that he planned to visit Antietam and Gettysburg while he was on the East Coast. I shared my experiences at those parks and at Vicksburg, where I discovered a memorial to black soldiers who fought for the Union in the Civil War. As we talked, I thought of how fortunate we are that so many great places have been preserved and protected for generations.
But the national parks are both a treasure and a challenge. The NPS estimates there were more than 330 million visits to its sites in 2017, with steady increases year over year. As visitors fill the burial grounds, pathways, amphitheaters, hiking trails and campgrounds, the NPS struggles to keep up with maintenance and infrastructure needs.
I am often one of those visitors. I recall standing on ground that the young Theodore Roosevelt walked and rode, looking over the North Dakota Badlands — the vastness of the jagged rocks and rugged terrain staring back, with the Little Missouri River rippling through. That terrain nursed TR’s pain of losing his wife and confirmed in him the desire to conserve the landscape for all to enjoy the healing powers of unspoiled nature. As president, TR laid the foundation for what would eventually become the NPS. I understand why he was inspired to conserve these great places to make the United States a nation “worthy of its fortune.”
But are we meeting that responsibility? Today the parks have a backlog of repairs approaching $12 billion — from clogged drains and overfilled septic tanks, pollution and sea level rise, to unsafe walkways, potholes, and leaky roofs. Even the North Dakota park bearing Roosevelt’s name has major road closures this season “due to continued deterioration.”
During this past winter’s 35-day government shutdown, I shuddered at photographs of the trampled and broken, century-old trees of Joshua Tree National Park. Closer to home, I visit Fort Washington along the Potomac River, where, as in many parks, the signage is worn, the parking lots are pitted, outbuildings are shuttered. The old lighthouse is standing, but barely.
Current tax dollars, fees and the support of the National Park Foundation (the parks’ charitable arm) are simply not enough to meet the nationwide demand and disrepair. Sadly, if the parks had a homeowners’ association, they would be racking up citations for violations.
The human invasion into the parks goes beyond the tramping of millions of feet. The effects of climate change are also taking a toll. In a recent study, researchers from the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Wisconsin documented significant temperature increases and lower precipitation levels that threaten the biodiversity and ecosystems of the parks: Glacier National Park — loss of greenery, melting glaciers; Yellowstone, the world’s first national park — devastation of whitebark pine forests.
Pollution, temperature changes and sea level rise threaten the 30 coral species of Dry Tortugas National Park and the structural integrity of the park’s centerpiece, Fort Jefferson (where Samuel Mudd was imprisoned after his conviction for conspiring in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln). And, of course, the fragile ecosystem of Everglades National Park is more vulnerable than ever to sea level changes that result in seawater creeping in ever more rapidly to threaten bird and water habitat.
Here’s the thing: We can do something. In the recently approved House spending bill for the Interior Department , under which the National Park Service falls, appropriators have targeted $2.7 billion for operations, maintenance, construction and climate mitigation. It’s not enough, but it’s a start. Like millions of Americans, I have some skin in the game. Of the 61 national parks, I’ve only visited 38, and I want them to be around and in good repair when I finish the list. So, as I get my RV ready for summer travels, I hope Congress gets to work to make our parks ready for this season and for future generations.
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