Earth Matters: Our national parks face many common challenges

The United States National Park Service began its 100th anniversary celebration this summer, and it gives us an opportunity to reflect upon both its past and future.

Many of us have indeed been touched or inspired by at least one special place in the park system. Some have been fortunate enough to have been impacted by several dozen.

Though the Park Service was established in 1916, nine national parks predate the formation of the agency. The oldest, Yellowstone National Park, dates back to 1872.

The Park Service now oversees 413 units, including 59 national parks; 114 national monuments and memorials; 154 national historic sites, parks and battlefields; 29 national seashores, lakeshores and rivers; and 19 national preserves.

They are not only diverse in their nature and focus, they vary greatly in size as well. Some of the national monuments and historic sites are less than an acre, while Yellowstone, Death Valley and six Alaskan parks and preserves encompass more than two million acres.

Regardless of size or location, many Park Service sites share common challenges, both now and in the future.

Long-term upkeep – Contrary to popular thought, parks don’t take care of themselves just because they are left in their natural state. Particularly in parks with high volumes of visitors, the pressure exerted by that many people taxes every part of the man-made park infrastructure, as well as the natural amenities. It costs money to stay ahead of all this, and Congress has often postponed paying those bills. One recent estimate set the backlog of maintenance and upkeep work at $11 billion.

Crime and vandalism -Vandalism problems add insult to injury. Iconic rock formations have been destroyed, graffiti painted on park treasures and monuments seriously damaged. Crime of all sorts is a growing problem, and a notable portion of the staff in the larger parks must be devoted to enforcement personnel.

Congestion – The automobile traffic in the most popular parks can be overwhelming during the summer months. I had an inkling of this as far back as 1973 when I went through Grand Canyon National Park for the first time, but it was hammered home in a most unpleasant way five years later in Yellowstone. Looking forward to experiencing one of the most famous parks by bicycle, we were so overwhelmed by the trailer and motor home traffic that we passed up Old Faithful and exited the park by the less congested eastern route.

Managing the people – Beyond the traffic, just managing the people can be a gargantuan task. The upper parts of the trails in Grand Canyon are so busy at times that hikers frequently have to stop to let other trail users (including the pack mules) pass by. Campgrounds, parking areas, bathrooms and the staff that oversee them are stretched to their limits in the peak seasons.

Adjacent land use – Though many communities near national parks understand the value of encouraging or requiring compatible land use, some mighty ugly things have sprung up in the most inappropriate places.

Writer and environmentalist Wallace Stegner observed 30 years ago that “national parks are the best idea we ever had.” Like other good ideas, it’s clear we need to work hard to keep this one alive.

John Frederick (jfrederick@ircenvironment.org) writes about environmental issues every other week and invites you to read more about the Park Service’s anniversary at www.nps.gov/subjects/centennial/index.htm.