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 suffers from an $11 billion backlog of unfunded maintenance. And visitors are aging and mostly white.
The park service's centennial is approaching. In 2016, it will mark 100 years. 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. Americans will be called upon to "Find Your Park."
Sustaining the parks and keeping them relevant to visitors far into the future is a challenge. Many facilities date back 50 years or more. Some are in danger of failing, such as a 70-year-old water pipeline at the at the Grand Canyon. 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 through the National Park Foundation. They also want to bolster congressional support to improve the parks.
This is the third major campaign in the national parks' history. The 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. The memorable slogan "See the USA in your Chevrolet" was created.
"They came in droves," Jarvis said of today's baby boomer generation. "They are our base today... The question that we're facing is who's going to be the next generation of park supporters."
However, there is a problem. 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. That's where Yellowstone and Yosemite are located. The officials want people to understand that urban sites also are national parks. A few of those 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. There are corporate sponsors including American Express, REI and Humana that are also supporting the effort.
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. But 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.
A campaign is under way. The goal is 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.
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?