Thursday will mark the official centennial of what writer Wallace Stegner once called “the best idea we ever had” and what President Theodore Roosevelt once hailed as “one of the best bits of national achievement which our people have to their credit.”
On Aug. 25, 1916, the National Park Service was founded to oversee a network of what is now 412 national parks, national monuments and historic sites. Those sites last year attracted 305 million visitors — a record that is expected to be surpassed this year with added attention generated by the service’s centennial. And while the parks have stood for a century as sentinels to the United States’ beauty and history, the park system is at a crossroads.
Long treated as an afterthought by Congress, America’s national parks are in need of attention. Officials have identified a $12 billion backlog worth of maintenance and restoration projects, yet this year’s entire budget for the National Park Service is $2.85 billion. Add in the fact that some lawmakers — particularly in the West — have floated the absurd notion that federally owned land should be returned to the states, and the idea of national parks is subject to questions about what we value and who we are.
The small but apparently growing thought that states should control public lands is particularly disturbing. For one thing, the states never owned those lands, so the thought of “returning” them is a misnomer. For another, the existence of national parks is a reflection of the very best of democracy, providing for places that are owned by all the people and for all the people. Roosevelt urged the preservation of such places for our “children and their children’s children forever, with their majestic beauty all unmarred.”
These days, there is a need for balance between access and preservation. Some six decades ago, park service director Conrad Wirth warned of parks being “loved to death.” At a time when visiting national parks was becoming a rite of passage for families with station wagons full of Baby Boomer children, parks were being overrun by unmanageable crowds and increased traffic. Congress responded by providing $1 billion for the construction of campgrounds, hotels, parking lots and visitor centers.
If the United States places a value on its unfettered landscapes, such an investment is again required. And indications are that Americans do, indeed, hold national parks in high esteem. A recent survey by researchers at Colorado State University and Harvard University found that the public is willing to invest in preserving these lands for our children and their children’s children.
Washington is home to three national parks: Olympic, Mount Rainier, and North Cascades; Oregon is home to Crater Lake National Park. For generations, these places have provided visitors from around the world with a glimpse of nature’s wonder, but the backlog of maintenance at Rainier National Park is $285,000, while at Olympic National Park it stands at $140,000.
Increasing entrance fees at parks is one method for addressing the lack of funding, but it is essential that the general public retain the ability to visit the landscapes for which it claims part-ownership. A national endowment funded with seed money by Congress and accepting public donations also could assist with preservation efforts. But in the end it is up to Congress to recognize the contributions that national parks make to the American psyche.
National parks might well be the best idea we have had as a nation. They should not be allowed to wither.