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The National Park Service has funding issues, but addressing some of the underlying, contributing factors is more important and will be more beneficial than simply throwing more money at the problem.
During the Bush years, the National Park Service received consecutive $100 million-plus funding increases. Obviously money alone is not a solution. Despite the additional cash, the NPS still managed to nearly double its maintenance liabilities while the number of park visitors, especially among the young, continued to decline.
The past director of the National Park Service actually recognized these trends and attempted to revitalize our parks with new marketing strategies, new funding strategies, new visitor friendly strategies for staff and a concerted effort to attract new, younger visitors.
Unfortunately, she retired and the current NPS staff is now tasked with either continuing the former directors refreshing course or returning to old patterns. I believe three issues should be considered before deciding which direction our park system will head:
1. The purpose of a national park is to be seen, used and enjoyed. If people are not encouraged to visit, there is no sense in maintaining the site. This is a matter of both logistics and attitude.
The National Park Service is either the keeper of our national treasures or the gatekeepers impeding Americans enjoyment of those same treasures. If it is the latter, we are all wasting our time and tax dollars. The NPS must insist all the units are welcoming and family friendly.
In the past we have missed the mark. A past administration famously declared the public was loving our parks to death. It seized the moment to demolish family campsites, ban personal watercraft and prohibit snowmobile options.
None of this was terribly welcoming to family visitors. This new administration has also proposed new regulations designed to phase out almost all available fishing tackle and ammunition (particularly needed by subsistence hunters), which will significantly discourage sportsmen from returning to the parks.
The park service is also stepping up efforts to tell visitors they are killing the parks. A new program will allow a visitor to calculate ones carbon footprint as he visits a park. Nothing creates fond family memories like a good ol-fashioned carbon calculate-off.
A constituent recently related a personal experience at a major parks visitor center. As he perused the displays he came across one that explained how walking next to trees stresses them and ultimately leads to their deaths. Now feeling like an assassin, he wasnt too excited about exploring the majestic tree stands or, more significantly, even returning to the national parks.
The recent concealed weapons permit fiasco kept the anti-entrance attitude alive. The Bush administration updated regulations and allowed legal permit holders to exercise their 2nd Amendment rights in accordance with applicable state law. This is the same policy the National Forest System and the Bureau of Land Management currently use, and it works. But now that change may be reversed. If the NPS insists on a standard that is more restrictive, the parks send out the signal that the Constitution is not respected on park land and certain average Americans are not welcome.
2. We have a serious maintenance backlog, and the park system needs to take care of what it has before expanding to take on new lands and duties. Here Congress shares the blame. Congress funnels pork projects to home districts, burdening the system and the taxpayer with questionable projects. Why did Congress this year create a new national park in an urban setting when the NPS concluded the area did not have the unique criteria to qualify as a park? If the Park Service doesnt want it and cant fully manage what it already has, why spend $37 million to create a new unit and even more to operate it?
Congress added new park funding in the stimulus bill. Thats fine. Then Congress created five times that amount in new liabilities in the Omnibus Lands Act. Congress has to learn to behave. Is it really in our best interest to buy an old golf course near Gettysburg when visitor centers in existing parks are condemned and closed for lack of funds?
3. The alleged Friends of the National Park Service have to quit suing the National Park Service over every NPS policy. We need to spend the money on real park services and protections and not on litigation. I dont care how noble those who bring these suits think their causes may be, they hurt the parks!
Our parks are national treasures. Americans want them accessible, protected and decently funded. We can better fund our National Park System by limiting costly litigation, by taking care of the units already on the books instead of adding new ones, and by creating more inviting policies and attitudes which will increase the number of visitors.
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) is the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands.