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National Parks Week: Perfect Time to Assess the "State of the Parks"


Don't let the hoopla over National Parks Week and the launch of the Centennial Challenge fund-letting fool you: The state of the national park system is depressing. While recent visitation is up, staffing is down, and park budgets aren't keeping pace with inflation.

That's the bottom line that underscores a five-year analysis, from 2003 through 2007, done by the Deseret News in Utah.

The analysis shows that visitation to parks is up nationally, creating more pressure on them. But the number of "full-time equivalent" employees is down, providing fewer services and less care despite the visitor growth. And increases in operations budgets at most parks are not keeping pace with inflation.

Of course, this isn't really "new" news, as there has been story after story after story on a frighteningly regular basis about the plight of the parks. Not only is the maintenance backlog for the entire park system pegged at more than $8 billion by the National Park Service itself, but individual parks are drowning in backlogs. Some, you might say, are hemorrhaging. They can't afford to fill critical positions, such as that of a landscape architect at the Blue Ridge Parkway, a bona fide staff geologist at Grand Canyon National Park, a botanist at Acadia National Park, and, of course, there's that little matter of doing away with two-thirds of the paleontological division at Dinosaur National Monument.

And let's not forget the stories about the Park Service lacking adequate funds to buy vital inholdings, or the annual winter slaughters of Yellowstone's bison.

Thankfully, most units of the national park system are big enough to wear the burden of underfunding and under-staffing seemingly without diminishing your vistas, your experiences, and your vacation. But judging from the current stress on the system, how bad off will things really be when those impacts do arrive?

Take a look at the Deseret News' story, and remember it the next time your congressman or woman comes to town or sends a flier asking for your thoughts on what's important. Don't forget the parks.


It really is discouraging to read all the happy talk coming from the NPS leadership about the wonders of the Centennial Challenge and how much good it is going to do for parks. Most park managers I know are in despair because so little attention is being paid to operational deficiencies, the kind that gnaw away at the basic core of our parks. Until the NPS starts to address these kinds of problems, the Centennial will continue to be what it is now: an initiative that favors those parks that can gin up partnership dollar matches that may or may not address fundamental infrastructure and personnel issues.

Rick Smith

True, NPS is having problems across the system, and the Centennial Challenge probably does amount to not much more than election-year, feel-good politics. That being said, though, at least it's better than nothing :)

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