National parks are truly America’s common ground. While our country remains divided on so many issues, recent polling conducted jointly by a Democratic-leaning pollster and a Republican-leaning pollster found that 92 percent of Americans believe that funding for the national parks should either remain the same or be increased.
The poll also found that only 6 percent of voters think national parks are in good shape today, while many more (80 percent) express concern that funding shortages are damaging parks and marring visitors’ park experiences.
It’s clear that Americans love our national parks and want to see them adequately funded and protected.
At the Blue Ridge Parkway, the linear national park in western Virginia and North Carolina, 70 positions are unfilled out of 240 budgeted. As a result, numerous needed maintenance projects have not been completed. Most Americans would be outraged at the extent of damage our parks are already facing from budget cuts.
In January, if Congress cannot reach agreement, our parks are facing sequestration – which would result in an additional 8.2 percent cut to the National Park Service budget. This sort of cut would be devastating to an already beleaguered Park Service. With sequestration, it’s estimated that approximately 100 parks would have to close. While it is certainly imperative for us to reduce the federal deficit, our national parks should be held harmless in this process.
As a member of the Southeast Regional Council of the National Parks Conservation Association, I recently discussed the budget situation with staff at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park – the largest Historical Park east of the Mississippi. It was alarming to learn that about 90 percent of their budget goes to cover full time employees and fixed costs, and they couldn’t say what they would do if they had even a 5 percent cut. In order to meet previous cuts, many permanent positions were left unfilled, including the deputy superintendent, the historian and several maintenance positions.
Overall, if the situation appears dire now, we are in for a rude awakening with sequestration: visitor center hours would be limited, campgrounds would close and services would be limited.
Our national parks play a vital role – in their ability to inspire and preserve our history, and also through the tremendous economic benefits to surrounding communities. Every dollar invested in park operations generates about $10 in return to local economies, according to a National Park Service study. Visitors to the National Park System supported more than $31 billion in spending in surrounding communities and more than 258,000 jobs in 2010. And all of these benefits come from an agency whose budget is only 1/14th of 1 percent of the federal budget.
We have to deal with our budget issues, but national parks should be part of the solution. If Congress fails to do its job and allows across-the-board cuts with sequestration, it will diminish the repositories of our national heritage and slow America’s economic recovery in the process. House and Senate members need to hear from us that our national parks deserve better, and that funding for our parks should be maintained. Our heritage and many of our livelihoods depend on it.
Dennis J. Winner is a member of the Southeast Regional Council of the National Parks Conservation Association. He is a retired Superior Court judge and a former member of the state Senate.