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National Park Service Marks Centennial Today

August 25, 2016 by   Leave a Comment

Grand Teton National Park

Grand Teton National Park

The U.S. National Park Service (NPS) has been building up to the agency’s centennial celebration, which “will kick off a second century of stewardship of America’s national parks and engaging communities “ today (Aug. 25) — the agency’s official birthday — with 71 different events planned today alone.

So the nation will reflect a bit this summer on the NPS and its core value, which, most big-picture observers point out, is immeasurably important for the country’s psyche in terms of outdoor recreation as well as its commercial interests as the national parks host millions of visitors who spent $16.9 billion in 2015 alone, the NPS reports.

As such, the national parks, along with their state and county counterparts in the public sector, clearly serve as incubators for the country’s future campers — public and private — because only 3% of national park visitors in 2015 stayed in NPS campgrounds, while 6.4% of national park visitors camped outside the parks themselves. That translates to nearly 7.9 million camper nights outside the parks compared to 3.7 million camper nights inside the national parks.

Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park

Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park

For the record, the NPS estimated that visitors spent $995.4 million in campgrounds outside of the parks last year, and that number is likely to top a billion dollars this year with increased visitation to the parks marking the centennial.

Looking back, the NPS came about nearly a quarter of a century after the establishment of the first national park, Yellowstone, which President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law in 1872. The establishment of Yellowstone’s status as a national park led to more lands being set aside to provide a place for all Americans to appreciate nature and, later, history.

And no look at the history of national parks would be complete without a mention of John Muir, the Scottish-American outdoorsman and author who co-founded the Sierra Club and was a strong voice for wilderness preservation and the establishment of Yosemite National Park and Sequoia National Park in California in 1890.

“Keep close to nature’s heart,” Muir advised, “and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”

Sunset from an observation tower in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Sunset from an observation tower in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Muir, considered “father of the National Park Service,” wrote of the national parks as “places for rest, inspiration and prayers,” and personally escorted President Theodore Roosevelt on a tour of Yosemite National Park. In addition to his beloved Yellowstone and Sequoia, Muir helped establish Grand Canyon and Mount Rainier national parks.

National parks and monuments originally fell under the control of the states in which they were located or under the auspices of the U.S. Army, U.S. Department of the Interior (which today oversees the NPS) or the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill in August 1916 establishing the NPS to oversee the dozen parks at that time. In the decades that followed, War Department sites were turned over to the NPS, along with sites around Washington, D.C.

Today, the parks are firmly embedded in the national consciousness. Everything from Muir’s writings to Ansel Adams’ photographs, from video of the National Mall in Washington, D.C. to the Statue of Liberty to the fictional cartoon Jellystone Park have exposed Americans to aspects of the national parks, above and beyond the millions who visit the parks each year.

With the publicity of the NPS centennial, a new record number of visitors should visit national parks this year, above and beyond last year’s record-setting visitation by all estimates.

According to the 2016 North American Camping Report commissioned by Kampgrounds of America Inc. — which, fittingly, quotes Muir in the report’s introduction — more than half of all U.S. campers surveyed plan to visit U.S. national parks this year, and the NPS centennial even has one in seven Canadian campers saying they plan to cross the border to visit a U.S. national park this year.

Similarly, the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) expects the NPS centennial will drive camping this year.

“It’s estimated that 22 million Americans are planning RV trips this summer, many heading to our country’s national parks to participate in the centennial celebration of the National Park Service,” the RVIA said in its groundbreaking study on the economic impact of the entire RV industry. In addition, the improvement of campsites in national parks is helping to drive interest in the RV lifestyle, the association reported.

Even so, the national parks are falling behind on maintenance, with funding for the parks dropping 21% since 2000, according to economic researcher Linda Bilmes with the Harvard Kennedy School.

NPS Director Jon Jarvis hands out Every Kid in a Park passes this year as part of the NPS Centennial.

NPS Director Jon Jarvis hands out Every Kid in a Park passes this year as part of the NPS Centennial.

“As we look to our second century of public engagement through our parks and programs, we need to think about a more robust and sustainable model for our National Park Service,” said NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis. He suggested the NPS will have to be funded with a mix of public funds, user fees and philanthropic donations.

The NPS is also considering soliciting corporate sponsorships, an idea that has drawn fire from some camps, including a group calling itself the Coalition for a Commercial-Free Childhood. “A proposal currently being considered by the National Park Service will remove rules requiring that parks remain free of commercialism,” said David Monahan, campaign manager for the group. “The new policies direct parks to actively seek donations from corporate vendors, while also liberalizing rules on donor recognition and lifting restrictions on naming rights in parks.

“That means,” he continued, “your visit to a national park will increasingly become marred by product placement in visitors’ centers and on signage, benches, paving stones, and park vehicles.
How long before our beautiful mountain vistas are tarnished by the logos of Coca Cola, General Electric, McDonald’s, and Budweiser? And what a sad message to send to children: that our cherished national resources are for sale to the highest bidder in the quest for commercial profits.

“We believe Congress should adequately fund the preservation and maintenance of our national parks,” Monahan continued. “These protected spaces should be a refuge from the hardships of everyday life, including the advertising and commercialism that surround us. The National Park Service needs additional resources, but the answer is not to deface our parks with corporate logos.”

As it stands, however, Congress is funding the parks at a level of only around $3 billion per year. That seems to be a lot until one considers the scope of the NPS, which oversees more than 84 million acres, meaning funding comes at a level of $35 an acre. That funding has to cover the overhead of:

  • 879 visitor centers and contact stations with 307 million visits in 2015.
  • 25 national battlefields and national military parks.
  • 128 national historic parks and sites and one international historic site.
  • 30 national memorials.
  • 83 national monuments.
  • 59 national parks.
  • 21 national preserves and reserves, plus four national parkways.
  • 18 national recreation areas.
  • 58 national rivers and wild and scenic rivers.
  • 33 national trails.
  • 10 national seashores and four national lakeshores.
  • 72 affiliated and national heritage areas.
  • 11 other designated areas.
  • Managing the National Register of Historic Places.
  • Overseeing the federal Historic Preservation Tax Credit program.
  • Operating federal programs to help states fund parks.
  • 22,000 full- and part-time employees.

Taxpayers are willing to pay more to support the national parks, whether or not they visit them, Bilmes said (see related story).

From Civil War battlefields to pristine wildlife areas, from the Statue of Liberty to the National Mall, from Denali to the Everglades, the park service has taken on a lot in the last century.

Whatever the future funding level, a majority of Americans would likely agree the national parks are an entrenched part of the U.S. “National Parks are,” author and historian Wallace Stegner pointed out, “the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”

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