Opinion | Energy & Environment

National parks — your Rx for good health

National parks — your Rx for good health

When the federal government shut down in 2013, distressing photographs of United States veterans prevented from visiting war memorials — National Park Service units — flooded the media. Americans wanted access to their national parks, no matter what. 

For these reasons, when most of the federal government shut down for 35 days in December 2018 and January 2019, national parks were ordered to stay open. 

During the current COVID-19 pandemic, visitation to national parks is surging. As more parks close to protect visitors and staff, we can expect another influx when they reopen. 

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In times of crisis and times of calm, national parks are America’s go-to places. Visitation to national parks in 2019 exceeded 300 million visitors for the fifth consecutive year. Numbers of visitors increased by 2.9 percent last year, making it the third highest to date, with nearly 328 million visitors. 

National parks are in the business of serving the public and clearly the public is leaning on parks more and more. So why aren’t national parks adequately funded to meet our growing needs? 

When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt dedicated Shenandoah National Park on July 3, 1936, he anticipated that people would seek out the park for “recreation and re-creation.” Indeed, generations of Americans have relied on national parks for physical, emotional and spiritual renewal. 

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In an era of increased obesity, high blood pressure, depression and anxiety, physicians are writing prescriptions ordering their patients to spend time in outdoor activities — often in parks. The National Park Service even launched the “Parks Rx” program

Many of us know empirically what the medical literature supports in spades: Spending time outdoors delivers measurable physical, emotional and mental health benefits. While I am not comparing parks with first responders — who are literally saving lives on a daily basis — there is a case to be made that national parks are a critical component of our country’s physical and mental health infrastructure. As such, we must ensure these places have the infrastructure they need to support our needs. 

Congress established the national park system in 1916 with the intention to support parks in perpetuity. This has not been the case. Federal funding for parks has been eroding for over a decade, resulting in a staggering list of deferred maintenance projects that totals $12 billion across the system. Parks struggle to repair the most basic and vital infrastructure — like sewer lines and electrical systems — due to a lack of funding. 

In Shenandoah National Park, the 75 scenic overlooks that dot the historic Skyline Drive offer sweeping views of the Shenandoah Valley and the Virginia Piedmont. Most of the 1.4 million visitors to Shenandoah come for these vistas. Yet due to funding constraints, maintenance crews tend these overlooks only once every few years. 

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Philanthropic partnerships with national parks have existed from the beginning. Initially these organizations raised funds for special projects. Now, however, they are called on to raise more and more funding to fill wider and deeper gaps in government funding for core programs. 

During the current coronavirus pandemic, entrance fees to national parks are waived. The twofold effect is more people in parks, with less revenues to support them. 

Every American can take action to help ensure our national parks receive resources they need, and in turn provide us with physical and mental health stimulation and myriad other services we depend on, both in times of crisis and calm.

First, you can contact your congressional leaders and urge them to support the Great American Outdoors Act. This bill will deliver $9.5 billion over five years to address priority repairs in national parks and other public lands. These funds will not eliminate the deferred maintenance backlog but will take a bite out of it. The bill also directs $900 million annually to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a critical tool for public land conservation.

While you have your congressional office’s attention, urge them to fully fund national parks through appropriations.

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Next, you can volunteer in a national park. Parks rely on volunteers throughout the year. When the pandemic is over, parks will be more reliant than ever on volunteers to help with cleanup, trail repair, invasive species control, etc.

You can also support the nonprofit partner organizations of your favorite national parks. These groups exist exclusively to channel your donations to the parks’ greatest needs. These go beyond infrastructure repair. Park partner organizations fund educational programs, research, wildlife protection and just about every aspect of park operations.

National parks are a key component of sound physical and emotional health, and emblematic of what we as Americans value. These great places must have adequate funding so they can continue to be our go-to places for recreation, for re-creation, for renewal of body and of spirit. 

Susan Sherman is executive director of the Shenandoah National Park Trust, the official nonprofit philanthropic partner of Shenandoah National Park. She serves on the Steering Committee of the Friends Alliance, the national coalition of national park partner organizations.