Making national parks relevant today and tomorrow Glacier National Park. At left is the Memorial Bridge in Washington (Thinkstock)
Making national parks relevant today and tomorrow
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After nearly 100 years, the National Park Service holds some of the country's most beautiful and historic places, though it also suffers from an $11 billion backlog of unfunded maintenance and a visitor base that's aging and mostly white.

With its centennial approaching in 2016, the park service is launching a campaign to raise support and court a younger, more diverse visitor base. First lady Michelle Obama and former first lady Laura Bush will co-chair the campaign, calling on Americans to "Find Your Park."

Sustaining the parks and keeping them relevant to visitors far into the future is a challenge, park officials said. Many facilities date back 50 years or more and are in danger of failing, such as a 70-year-old water pipeline at the Grand Canyon that breaks regularly and 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 and the nearly 100-year-old Memorial Bridge in Washington needs at least $150 million in repairs more than the agency's entire annual construction budget.

Behind the scenes, officials are seeking to expand fundraising through the National Park Foundation and bolster congressional support to improve the parks.

This is the third major campaign in the national parks' history. An outcry over deplorable park conditions in 1915 originally led to the creation of the National Park Service. In the 1950s, there were calls to close parks because of their neglected conditions. That inspired a campaign to rebuild infrastructure and invite returning World War II veterans and their families to visit parks, with the memorable slogan "See the USA in your Chevrolet."

"They came in droves, and in the back seat of that station wagon in the national parks were today's boomer generation," 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."

While the national parks counted 292 million visitors in 2014, those visitors tend to be older and whiter than the U.S. population overall.

"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 places such as Yellowstone and Yosemite. They want people to understand that urban sites such as the Statue of Liberty, Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Little Rock, Ark., Central High School and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington are also national parks.

Over the next year, an advertising campaign will show how people connect with their favorite parks. Corporate sponsors including American Express, REI and Humana also are supporting the effort with co-branded marketing.

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 including 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 sustained request that would lift the agency's budget to $3 billion annually to address deferred maintenance and other needs but 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. But he said the park service is plagued by "a clash of visions" between open access and new policies limiting access or amenities in some areas. He said the agency should be cautious about naming new parks before it fixes the ones it already has.

A campaign is under way to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild historic infrastructure with private funds. Campaign planners hope public support will also help build congressional support.

"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," said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

Critical thinking challenge: Why have supporters focused their efforts on seeking funds from private and corporate sponsors, rather than Congress?

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COMMENTS (6)
  • ShaniaWentz-Ste
    4/17/2015 - 01:28 p.m.

    National parks are the reason that America is beautiful. Not only are they a fun place to hike in and visit, but they are also gorgeous spots to have pictures taken and to have parties. National parks are amazing in multiple ways.

  • TaylorSeifert-Ste
    4/19/2015 - 08:48 p.m.

    When wonder what the distant future will be like I always imagine all these buildings and car types things hanging in mid-air without any grass or trees to be seen. Even though it would be interesting to visit a world like that, it would extremely devastating to not have any nature left. I think that technology places a major part in younger generations not visiting parks because you an look up pictures of nature that have been edited and all that fun stuff, but then when you walk outside and see a world that world less "duller" than the picture looked, the outside doesn't seem so appealing. Plus, so many things can be done online and people are just becoming lazy, sadly I know that I'm one of them.

  • jennaw-Koc
    4/19/2015 - 11:53 p.m.

    National Parks are very relevant in our time and age. We are very well put together and decent as a country. I love our country. We are very cool human beings here. Supporters have focused on their efforts on seeking funds from private and corporate sponsors, rather than congress for numerous reasons.

  • shannons-Koc
    4/20/2015 - 12:22 a.m.

    When the first national park was created congress wanted nothing to do with the parks funding. Yes, it was a national park, but the united states government didn't want to be responsible. Today, national parks have grown across the united states. There funding is relied manly on volunteering, and donations. This is why the National Park service is reaching out to other ways to raise money. Rather than putting up the same fight that has been going on for hundreds of years with Congress.

  • ShawnaWeiser-Ste
    4/24/2015 - 01:27 p.m.

    I love camping and hiking in national parks. It is absolutely breathtaking that the earth has created such a tremendous thing over millions of years. It is such a big contrast when looking at over-developed land.

  • CharismaM
    4/29/2015 - 09:44 p.m.

    Nature is such a big part of Earth's beauty. So many people don't realize it, but without nature our planet would be dull and lifeless. People nowadays need to realize that and need to spend less time indoors.

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