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What We'd Like To See Across The National Park System in 2010


A fresh, new year is upon us, full of promise and possibilities for the national parks. Photo of sunrise through Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park, by QT Luong,, used with permission.

A fresh new year is upon us, one still brimming with hope, confidence, and high expectations. So, what better time to sort through our list of things we'd like to see happen across the National Park System in 2010?

To help fine-tune this, we're breaking our wish-list into two categories, one that's somewhat big picture and system-wide, and the other that's more specific in terms of definable actions and park programs. And we'll count on you, the readers, to help flesh out this list.

System-wide Needs

* Bring all National Park Service websites onto the same 21st Century page. Let's see all park sites offer photos and multi-media from their parks, as well as "factoids" specific to their parks. Let's see at least a bare minimum of consistent information such as geology, nature and science, history and culture, and things to do.

* Bring sanity to the chaos that revolves around the ridiculous number of designations for units of the National Park System. Do we really need both "National Military Parks" and "National Battlefield Parks", or both "National Rivers" and "National Wild & Scenic Rivers & Riverways"?

* Let's hope that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, upon seeing the boost in visitation to national parks last summer when he ordered the National Park Service to waive entrance fees on three weekends, permanently ends entrance fees. Keep the rangers at the entrance gates to welcome visitors, answer questions, and hand out brochures and pamphlets, and install a donation box. We think the NPS would be amazed by the amount of donations it would receive.

* That the NPS find a way to push introduction of wilderness legislation where necessary. There's no reason that today, nearly a half-century after passage of The Wilderness Act, that neither Yellowstone nor Glacier have officially designated wilderness.

* Let's hope we find more rangers --full-time and permanent-- across the system to answer our questions, lead us on hikes, patrol the trails, staff the visitor centers, and entertain us around evening campfires.

* May we find that members of the congressional committees that hold sway over the National Park Service actually have an interest in bettering the parks, not using them as pawns.

* That a stronger investment, dollar-wise and personnel-wise, is made in resource managers to help track climate-change impacts on the parks and investigate ways to help the parks and their resources adapt. There should be a happy ending to this wish, as Interior Secretary Salazar wants $10 million invested in this very area.

* That the upwelling of interest and support in our national parks created by The National Parks: America's Best Idea continues unabated.

* That the legalization of carrying firearms in many national parks does not produce a single accidental shooting.

* That Congress pass legislation that provides adequate, long-term funding for the National Park System and eliminates the existing $8 billion-$9 billion backlog in maintenance needs.

* That youth find an interest in national parks not through their iPods and iPhones but through interpretive programs and working in the parks through groups such as the Student Conservation Association.

* That the Vanishing Treasures program, designed to preserve vestiges of the past such as rock art and turn-of-the-century cabins that are disappearing from the National Park System, is reinvigorated.

* That National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis re-establish an ethic of principled leadership and decision-making in the NPS that reduces or eliminates the recent tendencies to favor political whim and narrow special or commercial interests.

* That Director Jarvis elevates workforce (especially leadership) development to a higher priority to, among other things, improve the morale and satisfaction of the dedicated NPS staff.

* That the NPS and Interior Department work very closely with the Congress to begin to implement key recommendations of the National Parks Second Century Commission.

* That the NPS, Interior Department, and the Obama administration make observable progress toward re-establishing the significance and importance of the National Park System for all citizens of the nation.

Specific Needs

* That Director Jarvis, who has a science-background and believes science should play a pivotal role in the National Park System, makes a strong statement underscoring that belief by seeing funding provided to restore the two paleontological staff positions that were cut from Dinosaur National Monument last spring in the name of "core ops" budgeting. At the same time, funding should also be provided for a staff geologist at Grand Canyon National Park and a landscape architect at the Blue Ridge Parkway, just to name two glaring deficiencies.

* That funding is found to update outdated brochures as well as interpretive panels and displays and to replace vandalized roadside exhibits that can be found across the park system.

* That a solution to the dispatched Flamingo Lodge in Everglades National Park is found.

* That visible, and meaningful, progress is made on arriving at a sound development plan for the Yosemite Valley.

* That the unceasing litany of lawsuits over winter-use in Yellowstone ceases and officials identify a science-based and supported plan that keeps all parties happy and provides the strongest protections for the park's resources, visitors, and employees.

* That mining threats to the north of Glacier National Park and to the west of Waterton Lakes National Park are quashed by Canadian officials.

* That Asian carp are kept out of the Great Lakes and so don't imperil the fisheries that are part of the many national park units that dot the lakes.

* That funding be found to open additional cliff ruins at Mesa Verde National Park, such as the Mug House, to the public.

Thanks to Bill Wade and Rick Smith of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees for their contributions to this list.--Ed.

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Is there a link you can point me to, Kurt, that further explains your personal stance on entrance fees? I cringe at the thought of your "wish"...

- more people in the parks who are just "cruising" or looking for a place to hang out, which happened at the local parks where I used to work. Basically, the $20 fee isn't keeping anyone out of the parks financially...$20 more bucks on a vacation ain't nothing...packing a sandwich instead of eating at McD's with your family makes up that difference...but what that entrance fee does do, is make most people who will enter the park have a realistic appreciation for the keeps the riffraff out.

- less income generated. While donations would no doubt increase, it wouldn't go above the income

- continuing to have rangers in the sixteen-square-foot plywood boxes, confusing the patrons, and continuing the traffic jams at the park entrance, though now for no real reason. Again, this is from personal experience, though at the essential "county parks" I used to work at.

I've got a few more reasons...happy to divulge later, but I don't expect to turn this into a debate, because I know that's not what you're setting out to do here! And I don't expect to change your mind ;). So with all due respect, which is plenty, link me to your further thoughts, please! I read many of the posts from this summer about the daily removals of entrance fees, and didn't see a rationale for a stance this drastic, so if that's all there was, perhaps I missed something.

Thanks, Kurt!


In short it's a philosophical position. In theory, our taxes go to support the parks, and so entrance fees are a second form of taxation for something we're supposedly already paying for. Then there's the theory that Congress is holding these lands in trust for all Americans, not just those who can pay entrance fees.

If you've noticed, over the years there's been creep in these part because Congress sees the money coming in and, either consciously or subconsciously, factors that into their appropriations decisions and so the Park Service has to figure out how to make up the difference. And then there are the inequities in the entire system. The big parks (Yellowstone, Yosemites, Grand Canyons) benefit more from the fees than do the smaller parks that either don't charge a fee or charge a lesser fee or don't see the traffic levels. And don't overlook the creep in so-called "amenity fees," those charged for interpretive tours. Some parks don't charge fees because they don't have the staff to collect them. Some parks that charge fees leave entrance gates unstaffed at times, or don't staff all their entrances, because they don't have the staff.

You're absolutely right that $20-$25 is nothing for somebody on vacation. I've noted that before in some of the guidebooks I've written on national parks. Park entrance fees are a bargain when you compare them to the price of a movie, the fee to get into a theme park, etc, etc, etc. But national parks were never envisioned as commercial entities for the federal government. And if they weren't seen as a hindrance to visitation, why did Secretary Salazar order them waived for three weekends last summer?

Fair enough. Thank you for the thoughtful response. I can certainly understand the double taxation feelings. And you're right, it's philosophical. I guess I just believe that the extra fee, and in turn the double taxation, is worth the price when you take into consideration the value that all those who bother to pay the fees will then place on the resource, simply because they have to pay a bit.

I'd also rather not see fees pulled at this period of obscene debt, because it will only force more spending, which we can't afford...but that's a discussion for a whole 'nother forum. Having Salazar remove entrance fees in the next eleven months, seeing Republicans take over both houses as America overreacts to the current events, and remove much of the funding that has been gained this year from the parks, and perhaps more, would be a complete disaster. So I guess that even if I did agree with you, which I do only partially, I'd have to say this is NOT the time to have it on the wish list.

As for your final question posed, I'd be inclined to believe that of course free parks enhanced visitation numbers, but only because it's FREE! for that one time. It's just a form of advertising for the parks. It gets people who might not think to go, interested and willing to go. I'd be willing to bet that visitation increased (just as much? not sure..) in parks that there is no entrance fee, on those my opinion it all goes back to the publicity gained. If Salazar removed fees permanently, sure, there'd be higher visitation this year and next, because the parks are in the news, and people are thinking of it, but I reckon that ten years down the road, we'd be seeing the same numbers (or so) we would without the fee removal, though it'd really be impossible to prove. To be redundant, I don't personally believe that there is a significant amount of people who choose not to do the National Parks vacation because of the fees involved. So in the big picture, I guess I disagree that the fees are a "hindrance to visitation", at least in the long run.

At any rate, thanks again for responding, and for giving me a forum in which to put my thoughts. Here's to another year of the same, 2010!


Marshall, I would disagree that we can't afford waiving entrance fees. There's plenty of money in the budget...just poor decisions made by Congress. Here's the bulk of a story that I wrote back in 2006 that I think is just as apropos today:

According to Citizens Against Government Waste, in 2005 Congress spent more than $27 billion on projects that either were not approved through established budgetary procedures, were not competitively bid, not requested by the president, not specifically authorized, were requested by only one chamber of Congress, were not subject to congressional hearings, or served only a local or specific interest.
Of course, what's wasteful spending to one is not to another. That's understood. But why, at a time when there are so many legitimate needs across the federal landscape, are taxpayers underwriting the Tiger Woods Foundation to the tune of $100,000? Why are we spending $1.7 billion for "berry research" in the state of Alaska? Do we really need to spend $1 million to study waterless urinals?
Some other questionable expenditures cited in this year's "Pig Book":
* $2.3 million for "animal waste management"
* $250,000 for "asparagus technology and production"
* $6,285,000 for "wood utilization research"
* $469,000 for the National Wild Turkey Foundation
* $335,000 for "cranberry/blueberry disease and breeding in New Jersey" (Since 1985, according to CAGW, $4.3 million has been spent on this research)
* $20 million for the Bonneau Ferry in South Carolina
* $2 million to buy back the presidential yacht that President Carter sold in 1977 in the name of frugality
* $1 million to study Brown Tree Snakes in Guam
The list goes on and on and really makes for some light, humorous reading...until you realize how many agencies could benefit from much of this frivolous spending. Again, as I said above, what's pork to one is prudent to another. The Pig Book also cited a few Interior Department appropriations that it considered wasteful. For instance, it objects to the expenditure of:
* $739,000 to build a research center to protect the museum collection of Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park
* $4.27 million for the New River Gorge National River
* $3.4 million for Harpers Ferry National Historic Park
* $600,000 for the Sleeping Rainbow Ranch in Capitol Reef National Park
* $1.7 million for Mount Rainier National Park
* $3.5 million for a visitor center at Blue Ridge Parkway
* $1 million for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum
* $832,000 to build floating docks at the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area
* $200,000 for a preservation building at the Waco Texas Mammoth Paleontology Site
You get the idea. There are good projects, and ridiculous projects, throughout the federal budget. What we need is for our congressional representatives, such as Rep. Charles Taylor, R-N.C., Rep. Norman Dicks, D-Wash., Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the roughly three dozen members of Congress's National Parks Caucus, and all the others who complain about poor funding for the NPS or the wrongs associated with trying to rewrite the agency's Management Policies, to step up for the Park Service.
Instead of spending $1 million on waterless urinals, how about spending $1 million on interpretive programs that will help lure visitors to the parks? Instead of wasting $250,000 on asparagus production and technology, how about spending $250,000 on additional rangers in Yellowstone National Park? Instead of spending $6.28 million to discover new ways to use wood, how about spending $6.28 million to properly equip rangers throughout the park system?

The earmark system, while it can work beneficially for some parks that can't otherwise get funding for needy projects/programs, I would argue is faulty in that it benefits primarily parks that exist in the congressional districts of the most influential congressfolk, and only then if they're interested in parks. Utah has five "national parks" and another handful of national monuments, historic sites, etc, and a presumably influential congressional delegation, what with long-serving Sens. Hatch and Bennett and, Congressman Rob Bishop being the ranking Republican on the House parks subcommittee. And yet they have not seen fit to attend to the many needs of the parks in their state.

As for funding the parks in general, here's what Dwight Pitcaithley, a former chief historian for the National Park Service, had to say about funding the agency:

* Annual funding for the agency, if it is to escape its hefty $8 billion maintenance backlog and move toward greatness, should be in the $5 billion-$6 billion range. "... funding the basic requirements of the National Park Service constitutes such a small fraction of the operations of the federal government that if the current budget were doubled to $5 billion, that figure would amount to less than 0.002 percent of the president's proposed 2008 budget! Proper funding of the National Park Service is not about money; it is about priorities. National parks are important to the ecological and civic health of this nation and should be funded with public monies."

* Do away with entrance fees to the parks. "This user fee is inherently inequitable. In a democracy such as ours, the educational and recreational benefits of the national park system should not be available only to those who can afford them. The riches of the national parks should be available to all without reference to economic status."

You can read the entire essay from Dr. Pitcaithley that those snippets came from attached to this post: /2007/09/will-centennial-launch-national-park-service-toward-greatness

Of course there is wasteful spending. Of course the money exists to fund the parks. And yes, if we could happen to clean up the earmark system etc, there would perhaps be money to spend on the parks. But it won't happen with this administration. I could dredge up an equal list to yours, showing the waste that was in the "stimulus" bill. So my faith is not great that any of this would happen. My main point here, is that whether or not fees are removed, Republicans are likely to take the Senate and House come November, and parks will suffer. So in my opinion, the this "wish" of yours is poorly timed, but perhaps this wish is excellently-timed, as long as you "earmark" the wish that government budgeting is also cleaned up. So, perhaps "wish" is the perfect way to phrase this!

So yes, the earmark system does actually work advantageously for many parks, in many situations, but I agree that it is not something that should exist, and is in my mind, unethical.

And to beat my dead horse one more time, I would disagree with Pitcaithley's final point, that the user fee is inherently inequitable, because the $20 per week is not what will stop one from visiting Yellowstone. Economic status WILL influence who is able to visit Yellowstone, but by forcing those less fortunate to continue working without vacation time, and to disallow a week-long (plus) trip to a NPS gem due to the expenses of travel, lodging, and food, not whatsoever by the $20 fee. I can understand where the sentiment expressed by yourself and Pitcaithley comes from, however the realism in me tells me the point is well-taken, but moot.

Thanks for a nice, civil discussion, Kurt and Marshall. But I don't want to react to that issue right now.

Kurt, I very much like your list. But I'm going to disagree a bit on climate change research *by the NPS*. The NPS should focus its own research on the issues that it can influence or control -- and climate change is well beyond the parks' control. So, I wouldn't divert the resources. By all means encourage university researchers and others to come to the parks, bringing their own resources.

Also, asking the question "how is climate change affecting resource X in park Y?" invites groupthink -- people will look for impact, and any findings of no impact will be politicized in the current environment. Since the NPS can't change climate change policy, invest your political capital elsewhere.

Bob, we're always civil here on the Traveler;-)

Perhaps you're right about who should conduct the climate-change research in the parks. However, I think the opportunity long has existed -- both because of the resources that are preserved/conserved in the National Park System and the NPS's science mission -- to make the National Park Service one of, if not the, foremost entities for scientific research when it comes to natural resources, whether that be tied to wildlife, air, earth, water, botany, or any number of other "ologies." I do not believe the Park Service should be populated solely with fee takers and interpreters.

The politics will change with the election cycles, but climate change is an ongoing phenomena. I wouldn't expect the NPS to change policy in this arena, although its research could -- and perhaps should -- influence policy. Across the National Park System are varied landscapes and ecosystems-- lakeshores, seashores, high desert, subtropics, arctic, alpine and so on -- that will be (are being) impacted in differing ways by climate change. Is there any other single entity with such diverse holdings that has such a vested interest in monitoring and managing them and how they're impacted?

I think the NPS will have to be involved in both fully understanding what is ongoing and determining how to either come up with adaptations or other solutions to cope with climate change if it is to live up to its mandate of conserving these landscapes unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.


Happy New Year to you and to National Parks Traveler. Thank you for writing a very effective "wish list" for the national parks for 2010. With respect to park entrance fees: I agree, the fees should go, while the NPS mission in interpretation, education, and park science should increase.

Marshall Dillion consistently says that fees will not affect park visitation. For those traveling from afar to visit parks, this is certainty the case. But, for those who reside nearby who visit their local national parks frequently, especially on weekends, the presence or absence of fees do make a difference.

Do an experiment. Change the rules and allow entrance fees to be charged at the Great Smoky Mountains, Cumberland Gap NHS, the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, and the Blue Ridge Parkway, and watch what happens to visitation. Of course, current laws prevent such fees from being charged in these parks, but if the rules were ever changed and fees were ever charged at the entrances to these parks, local communities and businesses would scream to high Heaven.

In essence, the fee/no fee experiment has already been conducted: Shenandoah National Park. an entrance fee is charged, even though its Skyline Drive is an extension of the Blue Ridge. No fees are charged on the Blue Ridge nor on any of the entrances into the Great Smoky Mountains. Now, look how Shenandoah's visitation compares with the Blue Ridge or the Smokies, even though Shenandoah is much closer to the heavily populated Washington, DC greater metropolitan area.

As Mr. Dillon says, fees keep the "riff raff" out of the park (and most others who stem from local and regional communities and who engage in repeat visitation). Of course, I don't need to worry about any of this as I have my $10.00 lifetime geezer pass to the parks.

On the issue of park fees, I'd like to have Kurt invite Scott Silver of to say a few words on this thread of discussion.

Owen Hoffman
Oak Ridge, TN 37830

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