Trash, poop and potholes — parks need funding

Trash, poop and potholes — parks need funding
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They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. At least the road to hell is paved, unlike what passes for roads approaching Glacier National Park.

Park visitors are met with dangerous roads, jaw breaking potholes, traffic snarls, road construction delays and overflowing parking lots. Road construction is welcome, though it is challenging to get the work done in northern climes between the spring thaw and the arrival of hundreds of millions of summer visitors. 

The parks need a lot of money for road improvements, from guide rails to parking lots to road repair. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports that the NPS has roughly $12 billion in deferred maintenance — half of it for roads. The backlog remains largely untouched.


The National Park Service suffers from legendary waste problems. The January shutdown of the federal government led directly to overflowing latrines in various parks. Hikers all across the country are finding human waste both on trails and in campsites. The NPS now orders hikers to pack their poop out’ from places like Mount Denali in Alaska.

 In 2015, the leadership of Rocky Mountain National Park issued an open letter to visitors, asking them to plan ahead and behave better with both parking and pooping. (The GAO indicates that there is half a billion dollars in deferred waste management projects.) 

The parks also are plagued by deferred maintenance on trails and older buildings, including 28,000 visitor centers, restrooms and other buildings. Parks are understaffed. Employees cite a toxic work culture at NPS and it generally fails to recruit minority employees. Visitors are cited frequently for dangerous behavior. The national parks have a reputation for appealing primarily to white visitors, although there is a growing movement to change that, and the number of foreign visitors from Asia continues to climb.

The cheerful attitudes of park rangers and their efforts to keep the parks operating despite the problems, disguise the fact that the National Park Service has been underfunded for years. According to another GAO report, NPS funding did not keep pace with inflation from 2004 to 2015; nearly 90 percent of that funding comes from Washington.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpNew Jersey incumbents steamroll progressive challengers in primaries Tucker Carlson ratchets up criticism of Duckworth, calls her a 'coward' Trump on Confederate flag: 'It's freedom of speech' MORE has proposed cutting funding for the Department of the Interior by 14 percent. But recently, Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceDallas megachurch that hosted Pence approved for millions in coronavirus aid White House chief of staff dismisses need for federal mandate on masks Congress gears up for battle over expiring unemployment benefits MORE visited Yellowstone to endorse a Trump administration plan called the Public Lands Infrastructure fund to raise about half of the $12 billion needed by the NPS over five years, primarily from energy development royalties. The congressional legislation to enact this plan, called the “Restore Our Parks Act,” is languishing in subcommittees on both sides of Capitol Hill. 


Increasing park fees is not a good alternative. A 2018 proposal to hike the entrance fees raised fears that high prices would drive away economically disadvantaged populations — the NPS backed down

On the other hand, there are free market and limited government solutions to land use conflicts and national park funding, such as public-private partnerships. Reducing the government’s role in conservation is more controversial, but could be based on successful private natural parks and preserves.

Our national parks today illustrate the “tragedy of the commons” — things owned by everyone are cared for the least. It makes sense to undo years of neglect by using revenues from energy extraction on public lands to fund park improvements. 

Producers, consumers and local communities will benefit from new energy production and from renovated parks. Washington should be encouraged to ensure necessary funding for the NPS while opening a new conversation on creative market-based solutions to the challenges of our national park system.

In the midst of presidential primaries, foreign diplomatic crises, and national conversations on immigration and health care, it is hard to imagine conservation issues gaining a critical mass of support to take action. But it should not be hard to build a bipartisan national consensus around saving our national parks. We must not allow these national treasures to go down the toilet. 

Tom Copeland, Ph.D., is a professor of politics at Colorado Christian University, and a fellow at the Centennial Institute.