The time has come for Congress to address the pressing issues facing America’s living treasures, our national parks. If they are unable to muster the interest, then lawmakers need to establish a national commission to study, analyze and recommend long-term solutions for the national treasures, their funding and non-political management.
Their interest over the past few decades has been to add more parks, reduce the budget, ignore a $12 billion-dollar deficit to repair and replace documented infrastructure needs required by parks, all while reducing full-time employment by thousands.
What is needed is a review of the national parks, which can only be done through the work of a national commission. While this idea has been suggested and often resisted, there are tangible steps Congress can take right now to begin assisting the national parks, which badly need help.
This is what Congress should do next:
1. Reallocate funds and certain personnel from existing parks, that are at minimal risk and would suffer the least from being closed or put into a reduced operation for a period of five years. This would help the prime, most at risk national parks, to begin addressing critical, resource damaging problems, while other issues are addressed.
2. Allow entrance fees and other fees collected by parks to be maintained at the point of collection and allow for meaningful fees to be established for parks. Given the circumstances, fees need to be looked at closely and new fees considered for implementation. Existing Golden Age Passport, issued to seniors for entrance to parks, would continue to be honored. This would be an on-going process.
3. Severely limit the creation of new national park areas for 10 years and establish new requirements and criteria to assure that the resource being considered is of national significance — not just regional or local importance.
4. Establish and fund a new Mission 66 program — a 10-year overhaul that would bring national parks back to health — as was done in 1956. This would require, with the current $12 billion deficit, a targeted amount of some $2 billion dollars a year for 10 years.
Architectural, engineering and construction services, would be acquired from the park’s local region or area. Parks and regional offices would still assist with planning, design, placement and environmental issues.
Except for Alaska, almost all parks have local companies available for design, construction and similar services. They have the added advantage of knowing the local building codes, weather patterns, environmental factors and best local building materials.
5. Remove the authority to control, fire and/or reassign major park superintendents in the senior executive service from the secretary of Interior — a political appointee — and return it to the director of the National Park Service. The director of the National Park Service should never be a political appointee and should always have the authority to protect and manage parks without political interference and mandate.
In simple terms, national parks — and the natural, historic, prehistoric, archaeological and cultural treasures they contain — must be preserved and maintained for future generations. We must proactively plan and manage these delicate resources to be available for and useful to those of future generations.
Congress has the ability to correct the path of the National Park Service, but Congress will eventually run out of time to protect one of the great visions from America’s past. A vision created and influenced by leading environmentalists and conservationists such as Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir and Gifford Pinchot.
President Gerald R. Ford, on July 4, 1976, said it best, “The paths of history are littered with visions that failed because their proponents were not people of action and endurance.” He was speaking to a ceremony at Valley Forge in recognition of the park’s pending transfer from a state park, with more limited resources to a national historical park.
The National Park Service is a vision, created over a hundred years ago by men and women who possessed the drive and need to preserve nationally significant resources and places for the future. It is past time we honor and respect that vision of the National Park System.
Gil Lusk is a retired National Park Service employee with 35 years of experience and served as superintendent of several national parks. He was awarded the two highest performance awards from the Department of Interior, the Meritorious Service Award and Distinguished Service Award.