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The National Parks Are Now Open. How Can We Try To Keep Them Open?

turtles in the Everglades

Turtles congregate on the Anhinga Trail in Everglades National Park. Photograph by Danny Bernstein

Two months ago, our national parks were closed for 16 days as part of a partial government shutdown. All of us were outraged. Why are national parks considered nonessential?

Letters, emails, columns, and Facebook comments were flying and the message was clear: Open up the parks.

Finally, Congress appropriated money and our parks reopened. We all breathed a sigh of relief and things quieted down. However, they only approved a temporary budget respite, until January 15, 2014.

Where is the outrage now? And where was the anger when Congress imposed the sequester that forced a decrease in the park's budget, a sequester that can potentially last ten years. In Great Smoky Mountains National Park, budget cuts closed three campgrounds, two picnic areas, and one horse camp. The Blue Ridge Parkway is similarly affected.

A recent poll showed that voters think that parks are very important to them. But somehow Congress isn't getting the message. We, the followers of National Parks Traveler and national park lovers, are not helpless. We can show Congress that parks are important to us and we vote.

We can write to our Congressional representatives and urge them to work on a real budget. During the shutdown, that was the standard advice. But are they getting letters and emails about our national parks now? Write to your representative and two senators--you do know who they are, right? Let them know that you would like them to restore full funding to national parks.

There's more than we can do to demonstrate that national parks and public lands are important though it will take some effort on our part.

* As they say, 90 percent of life is showing up. Visit your local national park. Everyone has a park unit reasonably close to them. Hike the trails, walk the battlefield, study that monument. Thank the rangers or volunteers behind the desk for being there. Ask about the closed trail or facility. Chances are that your park made some difficult choices because of their budget problems. Let your friends on Facebook and Twitter know what park you've visited.

* Almost every park has a friends group. For $25 or so a year, we can show solidarity with our park, help it financially and meet some like-minded people. If the number of members suddenly shot up, our legislators would notice. You can find information about friends groups on national park websites; click on "Support your park" link. You also can find direct links to some friends groups -- Grand Teton National Park Foundation, Trust for the National Mall, Friends of Acadia, Friends of Big Bend, the Glacier National Park Conservancy, the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, the Grand Canyon Association, and the Yellowstone Park Foundation on the Traveler.

Even joining the group's Facebook page and Twitter feed says to the world that this park unit is important. Friends of the Smokies has over 32,000 "likes." What if they all became members?

* Even I can't join the friends group from every park I visit, so I drop a few dollars in the donation box located at the visitor center. Look at it this way. Compared to amusement parks, parks are cheap entertainment. A one-day pass to the Magic Kingdom in Disneyworld costs $95 and they don't even have real hiking trails.

* Buy something from the park bookstore. They offer authoritative books and maps on the site. Cooperating associations, which manage bookstores in the park, are hurting. October is a big month in park visitation, especially in the East; it brings in the largest number of people and sales. Think Christmas and buy your gifts from the park store. Everyone can use a calendar, a fresh T-shirt or some jam and honey to make life a little sweeter. Every purchase helps your park.

* If your car is you, somebody somewhere realized that you could show who you are and what you support with your license plate. So look at your license plate. Does your car believe in anything or is it naked? Most states have specialty plates that help support a driver's cause. In North Carolina, we can support Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the Appalachian Trail. The Yosemite Conservancy sponsors the Yosemite license plate. Check out your state's Division of Motor Vehicle. Usually $20 a year from the sale of each specialized license plate goes to the nonprofit friends group. In addition, more people become aware of your support for the national park. As advertising goes, this is really cheap.

* Volunteer time at your park. Almost every park could use enthusiastic people to answer questions behind the desk, take visitors on walks, or maintain trails. The park provides all the training and, best of all, you get to wear a uniform.

* If your park needs a champion, try involving a famous person in your national park. That's a reach but why not try? When Oprah Winfrey visited Yosemite, visitations and visibility went up tremendously. Dolly Parton was the ambassador of the 75th anniversary celebration of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but we haven't heard much from her in connection with the park recently. Who can you get to be a mascot or proponent of your national park?

* You may notice that I haven't yet mentioned donating money directly to your national parks, but that wouldn't be a bad idea. Usually you give through the individual park's friends group, but if there's no friends group you can donate directly to the park. Again, look at the "support your park" link on the national park website. The parks need our private money because our taxes are just not enough.

In the spirit of full disclosure, the potential January 15, 2014, government shutdown is personal. My husband and I have plane tickets to go to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands in this time period. The whole purpose of the trip is to visit the six national parks there. I hope they're open.

I'm sure you can find other things that we can do to make our love for national parks more visible to Congress. Please comment below and let us know.

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All great ideas, thanks for the encouraging reminders. I think we can too easily take for granted that our parks will be supported and there for us, but our personal and economic support speaks far louder than any political advocacy could. Case in point - governors of all political stripes working feverishly to reopen the precious / valuable parks in their states.

Myself, I like to pre-fund my park visits for the year with the purchase of an $80 annual pass, then try to get as much use out of it in return.

Danny, thank you for a very constructive article with many excellent suggestions.

I, too, buy a parks pass every year. I see it as a cost-saving measure (I visit as many parks as I can every year, and my local parks multiple times), and a way to show that I value my national parks.

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