Fix our Parks and Preserve our Youth

Reed Watson and Scott Wilson of the Property and Environmental Research Center (PERC) wrote a thoughtful article for the NY Times this week titled “Let’s Fix Our National Parks, Not Add More.”   The federal government owns 500 million acres of land, nearly 1/5 of the nation’s land mass, and has demonstrated its inability to manage these lands.   Currently, there is a $11.5B in maintenance backlog for our parks, which continues to grow.  This doesn’t even factor in the $13.2B and $19.3B in similar backlogs to our Fish and Wildlife Refuge system and BLM lands. According to Watson and Wilson,

Adding more land to the federal estate is irresponsible when the government is failing to maintain the parks, forests and grazing lands it currently owns. Rather than using the conservation fund to acquire more land, Congress should use the money to help address the deferred maintenance backlog.

Watson and Wilson are absolutely correct – we have a real problem that’s only going to get worse, unless we change the way we do things.   If you have visited a national park recently you’ll notice disturbing trends, roads in serious disrepair and restrooms that are filthy, nonfunctional or closed due to lack of maintenance and fewer park personnel to assist visitors.  This 2006 GAO Report chronicles the growing problem and what many parks are trying to do to stem the worrisome tide.  In 2016, our national park system will turn 100 years old.   We are a nation blessed with great abundance and opportunity, and it’s about time we began to marshal our taxpayer dollars to better manage our lands.

I want to highlight the work of one organization, the National Park Trust, that is working hard to bring greater awareness to this problem.   But NPT is more than just about preserving our parks.  They are about preserving our youth and promoting the incredible benefits that flow from connecting youth with the outdoors, including teaching our kids about the importance of environmental stewardship.  I love NPT’s Buddy Bison youth program.  I had the honor of recently attending NPT’s annual Bruce Vento Award’s ceremony here in DC.  Senator Rob Portman was this year’s winner, but the real winners are the youth who are benefiting from these special places, including the three kids from Beacon Heights Elementary School in Maryland, who were present at the ceremony to thank the Senator for his work.  I was a direct beneficiary of our nation’s parks, and my short time in Yellowstone as a young adult opened doors and taught me things I never would have learned in a classroom.  A special thanks to Grace Lee, NPT’s Executive Director, and Bill Brownell, the Board Chair, who are doing great things with our parks and our kids.  Check out this short video.