Each summer, Americans flock by the millions to our national parks. Some of us go to commune with nature by fishing and camping, others to ooh and ahh at snowcapped peaks and mountain lakes.
Unfortunately, each summer, at least in recent years, the parks have been a little more battered, a little less well tended and a little more in need of attention.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the scenery. Yosemite is still breathtaking, there is nothing quite as grand as the Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone Falls is still spectacular.
But the visitor experience often isn’t what it was just a few years ago and still should be. That’s mostly because the parks have become more crowded and increasingly underfunded.
Underfunding didn’t begin with this year’s sequester cuts — $183 million for the National Park Service, which operates 401 national parks, memorials, historic sites and other areas — but those hurt. As a direct result, more than 700 park police are on regular furlough schedules and the parks have about 1,000 fewer seasonal employees this summer. Also as a result, lines are longer, restrooms are closed or aren’t cleaned as often, visitors centers open later and close earlier, access to campgrounds and other facilities is reduced, and some of the ranger-led walks and nature programs have been canceled.
In addition, years of deferred maintenance associated with strained budgets have taken their toll on buildings, campgrounds and roadways. Yellowstone National Park, for instance, this spring delayed for several weeks snowplowing several roads to the park, leaving that responsibility to local communities.
Our national parks are treasures; many of them are legacies from previous generations, and they deserve better. Americans deserve better.
The parks need more money and they need better care. As to the former, funding isn’t likely to be restored, but higher admission fees are justified. At present, passes aren’t just a bargain, they’re a steal. A one-year pass valid at all parks for two individuals — and anyone who can fit into their car — costs just $80. And just about anyone 62 and older can get a lifetime senior pass to all the parks for $10; $10 a year makes more sense.
Americans can also be less of a burden on the parks by making fewer demands on the facilities and personnel and by picking up after themselves and maybe even for less considerate individuals.
Our nation is blessed with some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, and much of it is set aside in national parks for us to enjoy — and protect. Let’s not diminish the experience for those who come after us.