Forum Journal & Forum Focus

The Americans for National Parks Campaign 

12-09-2015 17:35

Every spring, I make a pilgrimage to Acadia National Park’s rocky shores. I’ve seen finbacks surfacing beyond the blinking red shadow of the Bass Harbor Head lighthouse, watched the sun set from the bold granite shoulders of Cadillac Mountain, and rested my spirit in this Maine wonderland of mountains, islands, and blue sea -- one of America’s most magnificent landscapes.

But this remarkable national icon is in jeopardy.

According to a business study recently released by the park, Acadia is struggling to operate on a budget half the size it needs. More than one million artifacts in Acadia’s collection, including a pair of Revolutionary War–era dueling pistols, have not been catalogued; interpretive programs have been reduced; and acute staffing shortages have limited the park’s ability to deal with traffic congestion or protect fragile bird colonies nesting offshore. Acadia does not even have a comprehensive inventory of its plants or wildlife, so park managers cannot effectively protect those resources.

It isn’t for lack of trying. Partnerships and private funding generously provided by groups such as Friends of Acadia have enabled the park to accomplish much beyond its reach, but those funds can only go so far in closing the gap between congressional appropriations and need. Like managers at most national park units, Acadia’s staff continues to struggle to make do with what it has, working first and foremost to provide quality experiences for visitors and protect the resources we all come to enjoy.

Research conducted by the National Parks Conservation Association and the National Park Service has revealed that the national parks are, on average, operating with only two-thirds of the necessary funding. At Death Valley National Park, for example, public education activities were cut by more than a third this year. Dry Tortugas’ fragile coral reef is being damaged because the Park Service does not have the funding to protect and monitor the resources. And native wildlife is disappearing from Lassen Volcanic National Park.

Funding shortfalls also endanger the parks’ cultural and historic resources. Historic structures and archeological sites are deteriorating at Mount Rainier, Grand Teton, and Glacier National Parks. Several of the Civil Warperiod and early-20th-century buildings at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park are in need of significant restoration to ensure their preservation and visitor safety. Most of Morristown’s significant Revolutionary War museum Collection -- including George Washington’s sword and more than 50,000 manuscripts -- is inaccessible to researchers and park visitors because of insufficient staffing. The Grand Canyon National Park contains thousands of archeological sites as well as 124 National Historic Landmarks and 336 National Register-listed sites, but only 3 percent of the park has been adequately surveyed for historic resources, compromising the protection of sites yet to be discovered.

“To keep the Grand Canyon the premier national park and sustainable wilderness it has been for centuries, we must face the fact that the park needs a substantial increase in funding,” said Deborah Tuck, president of the Grand Canyon National Park Foundation. “Decades of inadequate funding for this park and others in the system are undermining our ability to preserve these wonders for future generations.”

“Keep it for your children, your children’s children, and for all who come after you,” Theodore Roosevelt once said of the Grand Canyon, “as the one great site that every American... should see.”

The Rosie the Riveter/ World War II Home Front National Historical Park in northern California is another example of a park site crippled by insufficient funding. Located in Richmond, Calif., 16 miles northeast of San Francisco, this park was created in October 2000 to celebrate and interpret the contributions of an estimated six million women who worked in World War II defense industries, steel mills, foundries, lumber mills, aircraft factories, and other support services, mobilizing the Home Front and profoundly affecting the future of organized labor.

Unfortunately, most of the historic buildings and structures within park boundaries are in serious disrepair and urgently require historical assessments and interim stabilization. The park does not have a visitor center or exhibits, and there is insufficient funding and staffing to develop interim exhibits or to conduct tours for visitors. Funding is not even available for the administration of the park: The superintendent is one of only two Park Service employees.

“Home Front is a term that we haven’t heard in more than 50 years, but now, with the events of last September, it is used in the media everyday. The Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park has important lessons to teach us about working together, but needs additional funding to share those lessons with all Americans,” said Tom Butt, president of the Rosie the Riveter Trust and vice mayor of the city of Richmond.

Americans for National Parks

The reality is, while Congress has regularly increased funding to protect these important and awe-inspiring places, the budget of the National Park Service has failed to keep pace with burgeoning pressures that come from pollution, vehicle traffic, over-development adjacent to the parks, and increased visitation.

A 1995 General Accounting Office report, Difficult Choices Need to Be Made on the Future of the Parks, asserted that park visitor services are deteriorating and protection of wildlife and historic structures is uncertain because of increased legal responsibilities for park management, growing pressure from expanding visitation, and insufficient funding to support either of these needs.

In September 2001, the National Parks Conservation Association launched the Americans for National Parks campaign to address these needs. It set a goal of an additional $280 million in the National Park Service’s fiscal year 2003 operating budget, ramping up over five years to a total of $600 million annually to protect the historic structures, cultural artifacts, and plants and wildlife of national parks across the country. A matching grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts funds the campaign, enabling Americans for National Parks to hire a small staff, based at the offices of the National Parks Conservation Association in Washington, D.C. The staff includes a campaign director and legislative, communications, and grassroots managers, as well as a team of organizers in several states. The campaign staff is advised by a steering committee of national organizations and key regional groups that have significant expertise about the national parks, including the National Parks Conservation Association, Friends of Acadia, and the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A.

Through the work of the campaign staff and regional organizers in several states, including California, Tennessee, Washington, Arizona, and Colorado, Americans for National Parks is engaging individuals, organizations, the media, and key members of Congress in the campaign, educating and motivating people to communicate with Congress and the administration about the importance of funding the needs of the national parks.

Already the public has signed more than 500,000 postcards to the president made available by Americans for National Parks; the campaign has distributed nearly three million more postcards in 10 cities addressed to the director of the National Park Service. Americans for National Parks is also hosting town hall meetings, activist trainings, and events; distributing public service announcements; and placing advertising in several publications targeted toward members of Congress. Recently the campaign staff coordinated letters to congressional appropriators in support of increased funding for the parks. The letters were sponsored by several prominent members and signed by a significant number of Republicans and Democrats from both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Most importantly, Americans for National Parks has built a diverse coalition of nearly 200 influential organizations such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Association of National Park Rangers, national park friends groups, and unusual suspects such as private businesses, municipalities, and tourism and trade associations, from whom the park protection message is not often heard, and therefore, influential in Congress.

“Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park is an integral part of the tourism experience here in northwest Montana,” said Carol Beck- Edgar, executive director of the Flathead Convention and Visitors Bureau (FCVB). “Our members are well aware of the problems that have resulted from a lack of funding for this and all our national parks. The FCVB voted to join the Americans for National Parks in order to add our voice to those who understand and will promote the need for full, immediate funding of our national park system.”

In May, Americans for National Parks launched the National Parks Scrapbook, an online forum for people to share their photos and memories of the national parks, to inspire all of us to care for these majestic places. Americans for National Parks will share the entries posted in the National Parks Scrapbook with the president as evidence of public concern and affection for the national parks and as reason to protect them.

The President’s Position on Parks

During his candidacy, President George W. Bush pledged to address some of the escalating problems in the parks by allocating $4.9 billion for the national parks over five years. Conservationists believe that this commitment could alleviate many of the threats that plague the national parks, but only if the money is distributed in a way that satisfies the highest priority needs. These include resource protection, management, education, and park infrastructure repair and enhancement.

The president’s fiscal year 2002 Department of Interior budget requested $440 million for park maintenance projects -- an increase of $61 million over the previous year. Projects include improving a sewer line in Yellowstone, replacing a wastewater treatment plant at Everglades, and repairing the crack in the foundation of Federal Hall National Memorial in New York City. The latter site was named to the National Parks Conservation Association’s 2002 list of America’s Ten Most Endangered National Parks because of insufficient operating funds to educate visitors and preserve artifacts.

“Maintenance and natural resource initiatives rarely get the attention of a new park’s grand opening or a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new visitor center, but they are a critical component of our mission to protect America’s parks for future generations to enjoy and cherish,” said Interior Secretary Gale Norton in a recent press release.

Conservationists remain skeptical of the administration’s plan. “Decades of funding shortfalls have eroded the Park Service’s capacity to protect parks,” said Thomas Kiernan, president of the National Parks Conservation Association. “Although we are pleased with the administration’s stated commitment to the national parks and its work to address a few specific maintenance and infrastructure problems, a great many fundamental threats to cultural and natural resources remain.”

The administration’s fiscal year 2003 budget, which changed the way the maintenance backlog is calculated, boosts maintenance spending by merely $2 million and increases the Park Service’s operating budget by $107 million. “The reality is, the proposed budget falls short of the needs,” said Americans for National Parks Campaign Director Jennifer Coken, who maintains that the parks need a $280 million operating increase in fiscal year 2003 to begin to meet operational needs.

“Congress and the Bush administration have a responsibility to provide the operating funds needed to protect the resources of the parks and provide visitors with an enriching experience,” said Democratic Whip Nancy Pelosi of California. Several members of Congress have joined Representative Pelosi in urging Congress to support the funding request of Americans for National Parks.

“Walking the ruins of Mesa Verde, hearing the echoes of the great national debates in Independence Hall, protecting the wilderness habitat of some of God’s most remarkable creatures -- these are some of the most precious and uniquely American parts of our cultural and natural heritage. It is our responsibility to preserve them, for us, for our children, and for our grandchildren,” said Representative Mark Souder, Republican of Indiana.

The Road Ahead

This past September I vacationed in Tucson to see a portion of the Arizona desert that is still intact. For three days, I wandered through the cactus forests of Saguaro National Park, snapping photos of cacti in various poses. Saluting Cactus. Sleeping Cactus. Kissing Cacti. On the third day, I discovered Signal Hill, an area marked on my map only as a picnic site, but which the locals had advised me to visit. Bottled water in hand, I hiked to the top of Signal Hill and was awed by what I saw -- a heap of bare rocks marked with images of wildlife and people, and circles winding into themselves, carved thousands of years ago.

I stumbled upon this amazing piece of our cultural history, but what guarantees have I that my children -- and their children -- can experience this same breathtaking wonder?

You can help. The next few months are critical to the success of the Americans for National Parks campaign as Congress is meeting to appropriate funds for the fiscal year 2003 budget and the administration is developing its fiscal year 2004 budget. Visit www.americansfornationalparks. org to participate in the National Parks Scrapbook, to write a letter to your member of Congress and to the president, and to learn about other ways you can get involved in the Americans for National Parks campaign.

Increasing the operating dollars of the National Park Service by an additional $600 million annually would provide the level of funding needed to meet the diverse needs of the national parks -- saving Acadia’s wildlife, Rosie the Riveter’s historic buildings, and Saguaro’s ancient art, and ensuring that these special places are protected for our children to see, hear, and enjoy tomorrow just as we do today.

Publication Date: Summer 2002

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Author(s):Andrea J. Keller