Finding solutions to National Park Service housing challenges
While visitors revel in the beauty of our awe-inspiring national parks this summer, many of the dedicated public servants who facilitate those experiences continue face a housing crisis. Throughout the country, there are numerous examples of National Park Service staffers and their families living in deteriorating and outdated on-park housing, or in nearby communities where easy access to national parks has led to soaring home prices that government employees can’t afford.
As acting director of the National Park Service (NPS), I visited Mt. Rainer in 2020 to see firsthand how the park’s leadership was addressing its housing challenges. Seasonal and maintenance employees living in the park’s housing units told stories about how they had to stuff pillows into cracks that had developed in the walls to keep the night chill at bay, prior to recent renovations. Meanwhile, Rocky Mountain, Big Cypress and Yosemite National Parks suffer from a low inventory of safe and affordable housing in neighboring communities, straining employee morale and park operations. Similar challenges at Grand Teton and Acadia caused a record number of job offers to be declined. Grand Canyon also had to reduce its offerings because the park doesn’t have the housing to accommodate staff for those programs.
The stewards of our national parks, their families and local communities deserve better. Some current efforts are addressing the National Park Service’s housing challenges — notably a multimillion-dollar improvement project that began in 2019 at Yellowstone that demolished and replaced trailers in poor condition with high-quality modular cabins and upgraded aging utility lines. But more needs to be done. Superintendents and NPS leadership are identifying creative solutions to housing on a park-by-park basis, but they are also quick to caution against implementing short-term fixes that would create a cycle of quickly deteriorating housing, adding to an ever-increasing maintenance backlog. I agree.
Long-term solutions must encourage durable polices that addresses the housing issue holistically, recognizing the need to incorporate both legislative and administrative solutions. Solutions must involve traditional partners, as well new ones in local and tribal communities and industry, that can deliver long-term sustained support.
In June, I testified before the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forest, and Public Lands on how to increase safe and affordable housing for Park Service employees. Specifically, I discussed provisions within the LODGE and PACTS Acts that would help maximize partnership opportunities and provide clear language supporting public-private partnerships to increase the availability of safe and affordable housing within and near parks. The bill also would increase NPS’s flexibility to enter into innovative housing partnerships, similar to ones other federal agencies have used successfully, including the Department of Defense at installations like Fort Campbell in Kentucky and South Carolina’s Camp Lejeune.
Additionally, the PACTS Act would expand the National Park Service’s ability to enter into cooperative management agreements to address challenges, including employee housing, and support facility maintenance professionals.
But legislation alone will not fix these challenges, and the NPS must address the issue through focused and strategic long-term planning efforts.
The National Park Service should start byrevising Director’s Order 36, which aims to provide accountability, consistency and continuity to the service’s Housing Improvement Program. While this order is well intended, several policies it dictates should be reexamined and updated.
NPS also needs to settle debate on existing legal authorities in the order that should allow a wider range of partnerships with outside groups, such as local businesses and volunteer groups — but have never been used. Addressing these issues will support housing projects in coordination with community partners and contribute to local economic development, explore alternatives to existing housing models while developing a model that would create incentives for companies to invest in these projects.
Identifying problems is always easier than finding solutions, but we must all support tangible solutions to these problem for the enjoyment, education and inspiration of this and future generations.
Margaret Everson is the executive director of the Oak Grove Initiative, an organization founded to help government agencies improve their internal processes and policies to better distribute funds to support communities while delivering conservation, recreation, and natural-resource benefits. Everson previously served as the acting director of the National Park Service, acting director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and counselor to the secretary of the Interior during the Trump administration.