Protect, maintain, and cherish our ‘crown jewels’
© Getty

Our 417 National Park Service (NPS) park units are national treasures on par with, and in fact surpassing, the Crown Jewels of England or any other nation’s greatest treasures. They protect and make available to every American, and innumerable visitors from around the globe, access to the most incredible aspects of our great country. They protect our natural wonders, wildlife and fauna, major battles of independence and civil strife, understandings of what helped form many of our greatest leaders, and insights into some of our saddest legacies and greatest triumphs, to name just a few of the multitude of marvels the NPS sites represent. 

England’s Crown Jewels are locked in cases in the Tower of London, and kept hermetically sealed to be observed only through protective glass. Our Crown Jewels, our parks, are in every state, inviting people to see them, hike them, swim them, photograph them, learn from them, and sometimes cry at them, and sadly these days, for them. They are getting abused and tarnished without adequate operating staff or maintenance dollars to properly care for them, even as record numbers of visitors stream to visit them each year. Those visitors spent billions of dollars in and around the parks; over $18 billion in 2016. Virginia was the 4th highest state for visitor spending ($1.1 billion), and D.C. was 8th ($810 million), with Maryland adding another $235 million. The more than 60 parks across the region help support nearly 28,000 jobs.

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It feels almost criminal that WE the parks custodians, are letting these treasures fall into major disrepair given the foresight and care our forbearers invested in preserving these treasures, the joy they bring to hundreds of millions of visitors, and the major contributions they make to their local economies. There is currently over $11 billion in deferred maintenance across the parks. Tragically, unlike a crown of jewels which can be repaired or remade, most of our park treasures cannot be replaced once left to decay or deteriorate. What message do we send the hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world who come to revel in our Parks, our national treasures, when they find themselves waiting in line for a Porta Potty next to a shuttered bathroom whose continued use would leak raw sewage into the environment due to old or damaged pipes? 

We face this threat because the investment in our parks is small and declining as a portion of the federal budget. The entire NPS budget is a tiny 1/14th of 1 percent of the federal budget; in 1982, it was 1/8th. This has resulted not only in growing maintenance needs, but also a decline in park staff, with Park Service staffing down 10 percent from just a couple years ago. WE MUST ACT NOW to adequately fund the maintenance of these treasures, and adequately staff them, so that we are not vilified by our posterity for being the generation that was too blind to see what we had been given, and too miserly to pass these treasures intact to future generations of Americans.

Thankfully there seems to be significant bipartisan momentum at present to address this crisis. The 2018 funding package just passed included $150 million for parks’ maintenance. Sixty seven representatives (33 Republicans and 34 Democrats) have signed as co-sponsors of the National Park Service Legacy Act (NPSLA), a bill designed to start to provide a consistent funding stream to address the Park’s maintenance backlog.

My family and friends hike and bike Park trails, we kayak and fish in Park waters, we birdwatch in Park fields, we learn at Park Visitor Centers, we remember, ponder and give thanks at Park monuments and memorials, we teach our children and foreign friends about the history, greatness, shortcomings, and triumphs of the people and events that made, and continue to make, America Great. I advocate for the Parks because they give me all that and more! Please join me in calling on your members of Congress, and the administration, to support the NPSLA, and take other steps needed to ensure adequate and consistent funding for the operation and maintenance of our Crown Jewels, before we start to lose them!

Bill Hafker is a retired ExxonMobil environmental engineer and member of the National Parks Conservation Association.