National Parks Can Guide the Way on Climate Change | Commentary

Posted April 21, 2015 at 1:35pm

Each day I walk into my district office, I am guided by the iconic arrowhead symbol of the National Park Service.

This is true in the literal sense, as my office is located adjacent to Lowell National Historical Park. But more importantly, the emblem that adorns an old archway above an Industrial Revolution-era canal is a daily reminder of the critical role national parks play in preserving our nation’s treasures. It also highlights the challenges federal lands, especially national parks, face from the effects of climate change and the challenges of diminishing federal funding.

From California’s Yosemite to Maine’s Acadia, national parks provide a mountain range of benefits to communities across the nation. I have seen it firsthand in my own 3rd District of Massachusetts, home to two national historical parks and three federal wildlife refuges. As the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands, which oversees the National Park Service and other federal lands, I place special priority on ensuring those benefits are maintained, cultivated and grown.

By preserving majestic landscapes, delicate ecosystems and notable landmarks — natural and man-made — we are keeping pieces of our shared national history alive and preventing time and outside forces — natural and man-made — from encroaching on their significance and longevity.

The economic impact cannot be overlooked, either. The National Park System is made up of more than 400 areas in all 50 states, from national parks, monuments and battlefields to scenic rivers and trails. Last year almost 300 million people visited them. According to a recent economic study conducted by the NPS, every federal dollar invested in our parks contributes $10 in economic activity, supporting nearby restaurants, hotels, local outfitters, guides and more. Nationally, the parks generate $27 billion dollars in economic activity and support 250,000 private sector jobs.

But despite its significant and multifaceted contributions, the NPS is falling behind. The NPS budget has shrunk, decreased by 22 percent over 10 years. The result is a burgeoning backlog of maintenance projects. Infrastructure suffers while work on visitor facilities, trails, campgrounds, utilities and more is on indefinite hiatus.

The problem extends past the NPS budget, since out of the $11.5 billion deferred maintenance backlog $6 billion requires federal highway funding to repair roads and bridges. More reason for Congress to pass a robust highway bill.

So many Americans place enormous value on the ability to visit our national parks and our nation points to them with pride, which is why a substantial federal investment is essential to maintain and preserve them.

Adequately funding our National Parks is a smart, long-term investment to preserve sites for future generations.

On Aug. 25, 2016, the National Park Service will celebrate its 100th birthday, and the coming year will focus on increasing public engagement. The centennial is an opportunity to reinvest in America’s national parks, bring in new visitors and educate about the important role of federal lands.

But there is also an opportunity for our mountains and monuments to play a broader role.

Eroding NPS funds are exacerbated by dramatic changes in our climate, which are having a visible impact on iconic national parks. According to the National Parks Conservation Association, climate change will have, “disastrous consequences for America’s national parks.” Glaciers in Alaska will continue to vanish, the Everglades will further sink under a rising sea and Joshua Tree National Park will be devoid of Joshua Trees. That which we’re trying to protect is disappearing before us because of the effects of climate change.

For most visitors, national parks and other federal lands evoke nostalgia, memories of family vacations and unforgettable vistas. Knowing all that is in danger makes real the global problem of climate change and challenges us as a country to take action in a very broad way.

When it was created, the NPS was called “America’s best idea.” As we look to the future, we need to apply a similar visionary approach to address the emerging threats of a changing climate. The NPS arrowhead emblem, like the dial on a compass, is once again pointing us in the direction of environmental stewardship and a continuation of this remarkable legacy.

Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., is the ranking member of the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands.