Our national parks still need fixing

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Two years ago, we witnessed a historic moment for our national parks with the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act — the biggest investment our country has made in our parks in more than 50 years. Even during divisive political times, our national parks brought people from across the nation and across the aisle together.

In just two years, the Great American Outdoors Act has funded more than 220 repair projects across the National Park System like fixing crumbling trails at Mammoth Cave National Park and replacing a failing water system at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, while also contributing $3.8 billion in economic output and creating more than 36,000 jobs. And it’s not just national parks. This bill is providing full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund to conserve more land in and around our national parks and to support recreational facilities in communities across the nation, increasing access to outdoor spaces for all.

The successes of the Great American Outdoors Act are far-reaching, stretching from Acadia to Yellowstone, and covering a wide range of projects from crumbling roads and trails to aging campgrounds and visitor centers, all of which have been put on the backburner for decades because of chronic congressional underfunding. Now, visitors to our national parks will be able to see the results of these much-needed repairs and have even better experiences at these incredible places. 

Alcatraz Island National Historic Landmark in California, a rugged 22-acre island, welcomes more than 1.6 million visitors annually, who come to learn about the rich history of this place and hear stories of incarceration, justice and humanity. But everyone who visits this park site, including park staff and concessionaires, can only access the park by ferry. Despite the reliance on the wharf day in and day out, the wharf hasn’t been upgraded since 1939, and over the years, harsh weather conditions have damaged its historic piles, beams and slabs. Through a $36 million investment, the Great American Outdoors Act is rehabilitating this historic structure to better withstand the elements, while also enhancing public safety and access, as well as historic preservation and interpretation.

Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio is a refuge for iconic wildlife and provides unrivaled recreational opportunities for visitors to kayak the Cuyahoga River, ride the scenic railroad and bike the beloved Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath Trail. But over the years, the effects of climate change and flash floods have exacerbated riverbank erosion, creating unsafe conditions on the popular towpath and railroad. A $21.1 million investment through the Great American Outdoors Act will permanently repair the eroded riverbank, reducing annual and emergency maintenance costs, improving water quality and stabilizing the trails and railways along the riverbank for visitor safety. 

Freedom Riders National Monument in Alabama honors the bravery and sacrifice of a group of Freedom Riders, who were viciously attacked and firebombed by white segregationists opposing their fight for equal rights. Mounting repairs and lack of staff have kept the Anniston’s Greyhound Bus Depot and Mural Building that commemorates the Freedom Rider’s journey mostly closed to visitors. But a $6.3 million investment through the Great American Outdoors Act is rehabilitating the bus depot, replacing the roof and restoring it back to the way it looked in 1961, as well as fixing the neighboring Mural Building to provide visitors with more opportunities to learn about segregation and the Civil Rights Movement.

For a few more years, the Great American Outdoors Act will continue to address critical repair projects and improve visitor experiences in our parks. However, the current funding won’t be able to repair every broken bathroom, crumbling trail or outdated visitor center. And like a leaky roof left untreated, fixing these repair issues and subsequent damage will only get harder and more costly overtime.

Years of underfunding have taken a toll on our national parks, as the backlog of repair needs has now reached nearly $22 billion. National parks are more popular than ever before, but these infrastructure needs continue to impact visitor access and safety, park resources and local economies. And this estimate doesn’t account for unforeseen damage our parks will continue to deal with as a result of climate change like the devastating flooding at Yellowstone and raging wildfires at Yosemite.

For two decades, the National Parks Conservation Association and the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks urged lawmakers to fix our national parks. And our efforts are paying off huge today. Through congressional investments we’ve made big strides to address our parks’ deferred maintenance problems, but it’s clear that our parks need more support. We call on Congress to extend the funding through the Great American Outdoors Act and fix more national parks.

Just like we did two years ago, national park supporters across the country must come together to stand up for parks. The power our parks have to unite and inspire us all is undeniable. It’s time to harness that power again and ensure these places can thrive for our children and grandchildren to experience for years to come.

Theresa Pierno is president and CEO for the National Parks Conservation Association. Michael Murray is chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks.

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