Back in the 1930s, the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps essentially built our national parks:
The CCC built more than 200 museums, interpretive sites and park lodges, 2,000 hiking shelters, nearly 2,500 cabins, 400 bathhouses, 2,000 drinking fountains, and 12,000 latrines and toilets in the national parks. The corps also improved 600,000 miles of existing roads in the parks, built 125,000 miles of new roads and 40,000 bridges, and 8 million square yards of parking lots — an area equivalent to 2,500 football fields. CCC trail crews improved 100,000 miles of existing hiking trails and blazed 28,000 miles of new trails.
This staggering public work was meant to encourage outdoor recreation, and it did. America’s burgeoning car culture made vacationing in the parks and national forests easy and affordable, and the CCC’s roads, trails and facilities made those places even more attractive. In 1933, 3.5 million people visited national parks. By 1938, it was 16 million people, and 1941 brought 21 million.
That 21 million visits grew to 287.1 million, the peak reached in 1999. Visits to national parks have been declining steadily since, possibly because those 80 year old facilities and roads are what we still use in national parks today. As great as much of that construction is–you can’t visit one of the grand lodges in the parks and not appreciate that public investment–it’s getting worn a little thin. The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) estimates that the annual budget shortfall for the national parks is about $750 million. That’s led to a backlog of maintenance in the realm of $4.5 to $9.7 billion in total cost, according to the Congressional Research Service.
So the NPCA has a plan, in the form of a report (pdf), Working Assets: Reinvesting in National Parks to Create Jobs and Protect America’s Heritage. According to the press release accompanying the report:
In particular, NPCA’s new report highlights job-creating road repair projects in Acadia in Maine, Death Valley in California, and Glacier in Montana; accessibility improvements in the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina; sewer system repair in Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio; historic building preservation in Dry Tortugas in Florida and Valley Forge in Pennsylvania; and construction of much-needed employee housing in the Grand Canyon as examples of ready-to-go national park projects nationwide.
Additional projects would repair trails and bridges that visitors use every day, control invasive species, “green” park facilities such as visitor centers, and launch clean energy programs. In total, these investments will create economic activity, including upwards of 57,000 jobs, and address critical park needs in time for the Park Service’s 2016 centennial.
A recent study commissioned by NPCA found that every federal dollar invested in national parks generates at least four dollars economic value to the public.
The report highlights some of the most urgent needs in our parks: at Valley Forge, two historic structures are crumbling; at Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio the deteriorating sewage system is putting the park’s waterways, wildlife, and visitors’ and staffs’ health at risk; in Death Valley, the roads are so narrow and deteriorated as to provide a driving hazard, as is true for the famous Going to the Sun road in Glacier National Park; at the nation’s most visited and most accessible park, Great Smoky Mountains, only 17 of the 94 facilities meet ADA requirements for disabled visitors.
As a complete national park junkie (I even collect the reproduction of the original WPA posters for all the parks I visit), I wholeheartedly endorse this plan for reinvestment in our parks. And as an American, I believe it’s critical that–as a nation–we reinvest in what really are the crown jewels of our nation. The thought of 57,000 jobs being created in this venture is just the icing on the cake.
The NPCA gives their top five reasons for this investment:
- National parks are significant national assets
- Chronic funding shortfalls have created system-wide needs
- National parks have $2.5 billion in ready-to-go job-creating projects
- National parks offer a tremendous 4-1 return on investment
- The nation invested successfully in national parks in the 1930s; the Park Service’s 2016 centennial offers a historic opportunity for our generation
We’ve got job creation, return on investment, great historic symbolism–it’s a win-win for the incoming Obama administration. But more than all of that, an Obama administration that fully embraced the national parks as a public good, not as yet another opportunity for privatizing so political cronies could make a few more bucks, would turn the page on the Bush administration’s malign neglect of these treasures.