Making national parks relevant today and tomorrow
After nearly 100 years, the National Park Service holds some of the country's most beautiful and historic places. It also is suffering. There is a backlog of unfunded maintenance. The cost to do that work is estimated at $11 billion.
Visitors are aging and mostly white. Younger visitors are needed.
In 2016, the park service will mark its 100th birthday. It is launching a campaign. The goal is to court a younger, more diverse visitor base. First lady Michelle Obama and former first lady Laura Bush will co-chair the campaign.
Americans will be called upon to "Find Your Park."
Sustaining the parks and keeping them relevant to visitors is a challenge. Many facilities date back 50 years or more. Some are in danger of failing. One is a 70-year-old water pipeline at the Grand Canyon. The pipeline breaks regularly. That could cut off the water supply to the site, National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis said. Lodging at Glacier National Park needs a major overhaul. The nearly 100-year-old Memorial Bridge in Washington needs at least $150 million in repairs. That's more than the agency's entire annual construction budget.
Behind the scenes, officials are seeking to expand fundraising. The National Park Foundation has been created. The officials also want to bolster congressional support to improve the parks.
This is the third major campaign in the national parks' history. In 1915, the park conditions were poor. That led to the creation of the National Park Service. In the 1950s, there were calls to close neglected parks. That inspired a campaign to rebuild infrastructure. Returning World War II veterans and their families were invited to visit parks. The memorable slogan "See the USA in your Chevrolet" was created.
"They came in droves," Jarvis said. "They are our base today... The question that we're facing is who's going to be the next generation of park supporters."
The national parks counted 292 million visitors in 2014. But there is a problem. Those visitors tend to be older and whiter than the U.S. population overall. Greater diversity is needed.
"If we were a business and that was our clientele, then over the long term, we would probably be out of business," Jarvis said.
In studying public perceptions, park officials found many people think national parks are only in the West. That's where Yellowstone and Yosemite are located. Urban sites, in cities, also contain national parks. They include the Statue of Liberty, Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Little Rock, Ark., Central High School and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.
Over the next year, an advertising campaign will show how people connect with their favorite parks. Corporate sponsors are supporting the effort. They include American Express, REI and Humana.
To broaden access to the parks, all fourth grade students and their families will get free admission to national parks during the next school year.
Celebrities are getting involved, too. The science guy Bill Nye, actresses Bella Thorne and Roselyn Sanchez, E! News anchor Terrence J. and singer Mary Lambert are urging millennials to put down their smartphones for time in parks.
President Barack Obama requested an increase of $432 million to support the National Park Service in his 2016 budget proposal. It's a request that would lift the agency's budget to $3 billion annually. The money would address deferred maintenance and other needs. It likely will face resistance in Congress.
During a recent hearing, Republican Rep. Tom McClintock of California said Congress must ensure the parks are well maintained. However, he said the park service is plagued by "a clash of visions." The issue is between open access and new policies limiting access or amenities in some areas. He said the agency should be cautious about naming new parks. He wants the current parks to be fixed first.
In addition, a campaign is under way. Private funds are being sought. The goal is to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild historic infrastructure. Campaign planners hope public support will also help build congressional support.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell put the issue bluntly.
"If we don't reach out and become relevant to a broader population, we won't have the support the parks need to do their jobs in the future."
Critical thinking challenge: Why have supporters focused their efforts on seeking funds from private and corporate sponsors, rather than Congress?