National Parks Service’s Budget Crunch Jeopardizes American Landscapes for Future Generations
The National Park Service (NPS) dodged a very expensive bullet earlier this month when Congress reached its long-awaited fiscal cliff deal. The sequester threatened to cut 8.2 percent of the agency’s budget – nearly $212 million, according to the Denver Post.
But even with the worst of the fiscal cliff avoided for now, the Park Service still faces ongoing problems. Strapped with a perpetual operating shortfall, Park Service officials are finding it difficult to maintain – much less improve – the 398 ecologically and historically significant sites under their protection. At the same time, the average park visitor is getting older, and officials are struggling to keep the parks relevant to young people.
The chronic belt-tightening within the Park Service is wrinkling a lot of khakis. The goal of the NPS has always been to preserve uniquely American landscapes for future generations, but underfunding makes that hard to do. The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), which advocates for the agency, listed a backlog of more than $10 billion in deferred maintenance and another $2 billion in deferred land acquisitions in a 2011 report.
But while visitors to the parks may notice some wear and tear, it’s the Park Service employees who are feeling the pinch. In recent years, the agency has been forced to cut back on both seasonal and full-time employees, reducing its capacity to staff everything from educational programs to back-country patrols.
In addition to its federal budget, the Parks System does receive some financial support from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which reallocates fees collected from offshore drilling operations. The agency also relies on donations, both from private donors and from its official charity, the National Parks Foundation.
NPCA President Thomas C. Kiernan, speaking before the House Committee on Appropriations in 2011, said that these donations alone won’t flip the bill:
“While parks friends groups and private philanthropy contribute a good deal for the benefit of several specific parks and units in the system, there is simply no viable alternative to federal appropriations to maintain these places that Congress itself determined to be the most precious and important to America’s story and way of life, intact and operating.”
The National Park System, signed into existence by President Woodrow Wilson, celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2016.
Cody Bond is a reporter with Campus Progress.