In Our View: Invest in Nation’s Parks

National park system protects heritage, gives economic boost to communities

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Last year, America’s national parks attracted 331 million visitors — an increase of 7.7 percent over the record set the previous year. While visitors to the outdoors often are reminded to pack out what they pack in, those who sojourn to our national parks often violate this tenet by leaving behind their money.

It’s not that tourists were dropping bills on the trails or tossing coins into rivers, but they were busy stopping at restaurants and staying at hotels in surrounding communities. Advocates say that each dollar spent on maintaining public lands generates up to $10 in economic activity, an assertion that hits home in Washington. Last month, Enumclaw Mayor Liz Reynolds wrote in a letter to The (Tacoma) News Tribune that visitors to nearby Mount Rainier in 2015 spent $45.7 million in local communities.

Despite this, Congress long has been reluctant to view national parks as an investment. The parks are facing a backlog of deferred maintenance that amounts to about $12 billion, according to the National Park Service. This includes $24.7 million at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, and a total of more than $500 million at parks throughout Washington.

So, as we celebrate National Park Week and prepare to take advantage of free admission to parks this weekend, we again call upon Congress to help preserve some of America’s most revered national treasures. The National Park Service Legacy Act, introduced in the U.S. Senate, would tap federal oil and gas royalties and provide $500 million annually to maintain parks and monuments.

In Washington, that could benefit Mount Rainier National Park, which is facing a $285 million backlog of maintenance, and Olympic National Park, where the inventory of needed repairs is $140 million. It also would enhance federal sites such as Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area, San Juan Island National Historic Park, and other areas that celebrate this nation’s bounty of outdoor recreation. There is a reason national parks often have been called “America’s best idea” throughout their 101 years of existence.

Earlier this month, President Donald Trump donated his first paycheck from the federal government to the National Park Service, making a show of handing over a large novelty check for $78,333. That leaves only about $11,999,921,667 to go, and the early indications are that Trump has little interest in coming through. His squabbles with the National Park Service began on Day One of his presidency, when he complained about accurate depictions regarding the size of the crowd for his inauguration. Those squabbles have continued with a budget proposal that would slash Department of the Interior spending by 12 percent and with an assault on climate-change science and environmental protections.

Most notably, Trump and some conservatives in Congress are eager to increase drilling and mining to extract natural resources from national parks. This degradation would ignore a survey indicating that a majority of Americans are willing to pay higher taxes in order to preserve national parks and related sites, or a survey from Colorado College showing that 94 percent of residents in Western states favor more spending for maintenance of national parks.

For many Americans, the idea of preserving glorious natural landscapes is a strong selling point. For others, the thought of a strong return on investment should resonate. In other words, national parks can be one of the few things these days that can generate broad consensus. National parks should be viewed as a wise investment not only in America’s heritage but in its robust future.