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It has been clear for some time that, with or without the fiscal cliff, funding for national parks is insufficient. The hard, inside-the-Beltway truth about national parks is that pretty much everybody likes them, but the political will to do what is needed to restore and showcase them as a matter of national pride is unfortunately in short supply. Washington’s lack of will until now stands in sharp contrast to the 9 out of 10 voters — Republicans, Democrats and independents — who say the parks have been cut enough.
At a time when policymakers are, importantly, so focused on jobs, making pound-foolish cuts to parks, whether through a mindless sequester or a half-hearted substitute, turns a blind eye toward their tremendous economic impact. As the National Park Service and our great system of parks approach their centennial in 2016, it is time for Washington to join the rest of the American public in a genuine commitment to restore and renew our national parks.
Our national parks have universal appeal and are clear common ground among the American people when it comes to the role of the federal government.
Yet, without a change, families, school groups and other visitors to places such as Gettysburg, Yellowstone, the Great Smoky Mountains, Mount Rainier or any one of our 398 national parks across the country can expect to see more closed campgrounds, visitors centers and parks as Washington continues to nickel and dime our national treasures. The communities that depend on them for more than half a million private sector jobs and benefit from more than $30 billion in national-park-related spending will suffer, too. Every dollar we cut from our parks hastens the spread of this encroaching reality.
The National Parks Conservation Association has joined forces with those arguing for a long-term solution to our national debt because it’s clear to us that, without one, our parks will continue to wither on the vine. It is time to stop playing small ball with the 17 percent of the budget that includes the national parks and deal with the core issues that are actually feeding our growing debt — insufficient economic growth, insufficient revenue and growth in entitlement spending. Unless Washington follows through on a long-term, balanced solution to our debt situation, national parks and their worthy brethren in the annual appropriations process will be on life support, with the oxygen tank running down.
Funding for the National Park Service is a bargain at 1/14 of 1 percent of the federal budget and declining. Yet every dollar invested in our parks generates $10 in economic activity. At a time when economic recovery and jobs continue to be a top priority, with so much of our nation and the world questioning Washington’s ability to solve the most basic problems, national parks offer an opportunity to demonstrate how the parties and the legislative and executive branches of government can work together.
With an annual operating shortfall exceeding half a billion dollars and a maintenance backlog of many billions more, we can work together on a combination of solutions that will honor and maintain America’s treasures for present and future generations, not allow them to crumble and wither.
We need to put a floor beneath the National Park Service’s annual, appropriated budget, but we should not stop there. If our national leaders will show a meaningful commitment to our parks, the American people will be with you. A public-private matching partnership has had strong bipartisan support in the past and should be supported going forward.
As Congress begins to debate the next transportation bill — a job producer that accounts for more than half the Park Service backlog — perhaps the debate should also include devoting a “penny for parks” from the gas tax to address the enormous needs of our national parks, refuges and other public lands. We should be seeking a variety of constructive, creative solutions.
As our elected leaders continue discussions to address the deficit, it is time to think about what unites us a nation: America’s 398 national parks, from the Statue of Liberty and Independence Hall to Yellowstone’s geysers and Alaska’s icy peaks. If national parks can unite more than 90 percent of Americans, we remain hopeful that the president and congressional Republicans and Democrats will join them. On behalf of our 750,000 members and supporters, and the nearly 300 million people who visit our national parks each year, the National Parks Conservation Association pledges to work with our national leaders to address together a challenge that we can meet. With the 2016 National Park System centennial fast approaching, present and future generations will be proud and thankful, and so will you.
Tom Kiernan is president of the National Parks Conservation Association.