The Future of Our National Parks

The national parks are the United States’ greatest natural treasures and are meant to be enjoyed by all citizens. A small group of people first envisioned the establishment of national parks in the mid-1800s. Naturalists and writers such as John Muir advocated for the beauty of these lands. Yosemite National Park in particular was at the heart of the movement to preserve the country’s  national wonders. It was first established as a California state park by President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. Years later in 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant approved the establishment of Yellowstone National Park, the first “national” park. Following the Yellowstone precedent, Congress continued to establish national parks, which now total to 59, with the latest addition of Pinnacles National Park in 2013.

The success of our national parks is contingent upon funding, maintenance, staffing and environmental regulations. Just a year after the National Park Service’s Centennial celebration and record breaking annual recreation visitation of 331 million, actions by the Trump administration are putting our national parks in danger.

President Trump’s budget proposal calls for cutting the Interior Department’s budget by 12%. The cuts amount to $1.6 billion, reducing funding to $11.6 billion in the 2018 fiscal year. These budget cuts are devastating for the National Park Service, which is facing $300 million in cuts. The NPS released its 2018 budget justification explaining their requested funding levels and their impacts, and it is clear that the budget cuts will not meet their needs. These cuts are the biggest attack on the agency since World War II. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a vocal supporter of land conservation, asserts that the budget cuts represent much needed reorganization on how to manage federal lands in the next 100 years. Other policymakers in the field disagree; Theresa Pierno, President and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association, released a statement that the budget cuts would be deeply damaging and called on Congress to reject the budget.   

In the budget cuts, the National Park Service would lose the equivalent of 1,242 full-time staff. This 6% staffing cut will have negative impacts on the operations of national parks, such as limiting the National Park Service’s ability to provide sufficient seasonal rangers and operational staff. At these lower staff levels, visitors would face a reduction in services offered and the current staff would have a heavier workload. With visitation at record high levels, the national park staff is as important as ever.

Despite budget cuts to the Interior Department and National Park Service, the Trump administration wants to triple entrance fees to select national parks. This steep increase would impact the 17 most popular parks during their peak season, typically ranging from May to September. In most parks, the cost for a vehicle entering a park is roughly $25. With the increase, visitors will be charged up to $70 per vehicle. Though the price hike may not significantly affect visitation rates for destination parks such as Denali or the Grand Canyon, visitors may not find it worthwhile to enter parks for day trips. The raise in entrance fees is aimed to address the maintenance backlogs in national parks, yet the Trump Administration moves to cut the National Park Service budget by almost $300 million. The maintenance fees should be covered by the NPS budget, not fall upon visitors. The parks are meant to be enjoyed by everyone, but this increase would make them unaffordable for many Americans. The new fees are only expected to raise $70 million based on current visitation rates, nowhere near enough to compensate for the budget cuts or greatly impact the $11.9 billion worth of maintenance backlogs. If the proposal is approved, the new entry fee levels would go into effect in the 2018 season.

Trump’s proposed budget does not prioritize the environment. His administration cut the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument by 85% and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by 45%. He also aims to shift the focus of the Interior Department to provide funding for the development of oil, gas and coal investments on public lands and review oil and gas regulations for the National Park System. The National Park Conservation Association interpreted this as “a direct attack on national parks.” This reorganization of funds is intended to provide for economic development, but is not environmentally friendly or sustainable. It is important to consider what will be left of our lands when we are out of nonrenewable resources like coal and oil.

Conservation champion President Theodore Roosevelt said, "We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received, and each one must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune." As a strong advocate for the national parks, he would be gravely disappointed in our current administration. Preservation is essential so future generations can enjoy the gift that is our national parks, and the U.S. government has the unique responsibility to uphold the philosophy of the National Park Service and protect our natural resources.