Can the Pandemic Save America’s Crumbling National Parks?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Before they were closed, national parks saw a surge in visitors. But they’re underfunded and in need of repairs.
By Stephen Starr
At the Taylorsville MetroPark in southwest Ohio, parking is in short supply. The trail that runs parallel to the Great Miami River north of Dayton is busy with cyclists, joggers and dog walkers out in the spring sunshine. The trail is dotted with signs urging users to stay 6 feet apart to help reduce the transmission of the coronavirus.
It’s become a familiar scene ever since coronavirus-fueled stay-at-home orders left Ohioans and millions of Americans homebound last month. With people allowed to leave the house only for essential shopping, to work or for exercise, parks and trails quickly became crucial to maintaining a semblance of normality for millions. Now, with many parks closed after struggling to ensure social distancing among visitors, the recognition of their value is leading to a chorus calling for greater financial assistance to rescue America’s crumbling parks.
States such as Colorado, home to four national parks and 23 million acres of public land, saw record numbers descend on its public spaces in March as people fled to the outdoors for exercise and a break from home. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park saw 30,000 visitors a day — up 20 percent from the previous year — in the period before it closed on March 24.
But the National Park Service (NPS), the organization that runs the country’s 419 national parks and sites, is struggling with a $12 billion funding shortfall. A bipartisan bill introduced in Congress in March, the Great American Outdoors Act, proposes to try to fix that, and could release $6.5 billion of the NPS budget shortfall.
This temporary loss [the closing of parks] … is an undeniable reminder of the natural and economic values of these places.
Marcia Argust, Pew Charitable Trusts
Pressure is also coming from independent groups like the Pew Charitable Trusts, which in March asked voters to write to their members of Congress to demand that both houses pass the bill soon. And major local newspapers — from Washington state to Iowa — are calling in op-eds for the release of funding for the NPS.
“This temporary loss [the closing of parks] — which is entirely understandable given safety concerns — is an undeniable reminder of the natural and economic values of these places,” says Marcia Argust, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Restore America’s Parks initiative.
It’s also a reminder of the challenges that the United States’ national parks face. Places such as Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Glacier National Park — vast recreational areas that provide an outlet for millions of people every year — were closed in March in part because they don’t have the resources or infrastructure to ensure visitors practice physical distancing. Facilities such as bathrooms and water fountains have mostly been shut down across the board. And in Wyoming, home to Yellowstone and other major parks, police and health departments have been actively urging visitors to stay away least they overwhelm local health care resources.
But when parks and trails reopen, they will still offer far safer options for outdoor activities while maintaining social distancing than going to a sports event, concert or shopping mall. Their relevance to millions of Americans in the coming months will only grow. Our parks “are important [now] because people need to get out of their house for recreation,” says photographer QT Luong, who, between 1993 and 2019, visited all 61 U.S. national parks.
Meeting that public demand won’t be easy at a time the Trump administration’s budget for 2021 includes a $587 million cut in funding to the NPS. “Every American should be offended by how little the administration has prioritized our national parks and public lands,” railed Theresa Pierno, president and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association, in a February statement.
There’s already evidence of the growing fondness for the outdoors among Americans. Sparked in part by the NPS’ centennial in 2016, record numbers of people were getting off the couch and into nature before the pandemic. Over the past decade, visits to National Park sites across the U.S. have increased almost 13 percent with more than 327 million visits recorded last year alone. Between 2017 and 2018, the number of Americans taking part in at least one outdoor activity rose by 5.7 million, according to the Outdoor Foundation.
Major park and trail destinations also fuel economic gains — $18 billion each year in direct spending to communities, along with more than 325,000 jobs and local tax revenue, critical at a time the economy is tanking.
The bipartisan bill in Congress, which Trump has promised to sign into law, could help the parks. And since Congress — not the White House — decides the budget, experts are hopeful that support for parks might at least partly neutralize Trump’s plans for NPS funding cuts.
But few believe that state or federal government agencies will extend additional funding avenues for other outdoor recreation sites and organizations. Others say it’s too early to tell whether the pandemic can fuel the kind of change that gives parks the funding they desperately need. “Congress is focused right now on providing relief to the unemployed, small businesses and hospitals,” says Argust.
Still, history shows that the revival of the great outdoors can also prove to be a crucial source of jobs. During the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt spent what today would be equivalent to $58 billion putting 3 million people back to work restoring and building infrastructure in parks and public lands.
Those lessons could be applied again today, in bringing the United States’ massive parks system back into shape. The reason is clear: Whether it’s safe outdoor activities or rebuilding the economy from the ruins of the pandemic, parks and trails are among the country’s best bets.
- Stephen Starr, Stephen Starr is a journalist and author who lived in Syria from 2007 until 2012. He is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising.Contact Stephen Starr