NPCA Report Offers Poor Grades For Protection of National Parks

The National Park Service is doing a poor job preserving cultural resources, according to a report from the National Parks Conservation Association. Photo of Mug House in Mesa Verde National Park by Kurt Repanshek.

If the National Park Service were graded on how it's managing the National Park System, its latest report card would reflect a mediocre student, one with poor attention to detail and who, perhaps, doesn't play well with others.

Ethnography? F

Cultural landscapes? F

Archaeology? D-

Historic Structures? D

Museum Collections and archives? D

History? D

Overall cultural resources management? D-

Ecosystem extent and function? D

Species Composition and condition? D

Overall natural resource management? C-

These grades pertaining to how the Park Service is managing cultural and natural resources in 54 of the system's 391 units were delivered today in a report from the National Parks Conservation Association that concludes that "chronic under-funding is compromising the ability of the National Park Service to preserve and protect irreplaceable elements of our nation's natural and cultural heritage."

Within the 32 pages of The State of Our National Parks: A Resources Index, the authors highlight some of the most trying situations to be found across the National Park System's natural and cultural landscapes.

Prepared by NPCA's Center for State of the Parks, the document's details were compiled using eight years' worth of individual park assessments that were updated for this effort. The data then were fed into scientifically designed and peer-reviewed methodologies that produced a numerical score for natural and cultural resource conditions in the parks.

The findings by themselves aren't terribly groundbreaking. It's been known for quite some time that air and water pollution, invasive species, and climate change are impacting the parks. Too, it's been often reported that the Park Service is both underfunded and understaffed, and that some of its facilities and museums and archives are in a very troubled state. But this report pulls all that information together in one place and describes the accumulated impact on the park system.

In many of America's national parks, the capacity of the National Park Service to address external threats is compromised by a lack of sufficient staff and operational funding. Legislation and national policies authorize the Park Service to address external threats, but too frequently lack of information limits the agency's ability to do so.

Some external threats -- air pollution, for example -- also affect cultural resources, but the NPRI indicates that the most serious threats to cultural heritage stem from lack of funding to hire professional staff to care for historic structures, museum collections, and cultural landscapes. Funds to support preservation projects and interpret America's history for visitors also are in short supply.

While the report acknowledges that increased funding and staffing can reverse many of the impacts, it adds that a collective effort is needed to preserve the parks for future generations. "...dealing with the most pervasive external threats -- air pollution, water use, climate change, and adjacent land development -- may require new policies for working with neighbors and with society at large," it reads.

Ron Tipton, NPCA's senior vice president, said a key finding of the report is how fragile national parks are when it comes to the development of lands beyond a park's borders. Development on those lands can spread non-native species into the parks, degrade scenic views, and fragment wildlife habitat and corridors, he said.

While there is "no perfect solution" to coping with adjacent lands, Mr. Tipton said there are a variety of measures that can be acted upon now and which, collectively, can offer the parks more protection.

"First of all, in some places you ought to expand the boundaries of the park, especially in the West where we’re talking about adjacent land problems that occur outside a park’s boundaries on other federal land," he said. "The solution at Canyonlands is to expand Canyonlands, create the boundaries that should have been created 40 years ago. They still can be created.

"Secondly, other federal agencies’ actions can be curtailed or at least managed to be compatible to parks. This is an age-old issue. But the more you see the more you realize that other federal agencies, particularly in the West, they really do drive some of the resource problems," Mr. Tipton continued. “Thirdly, we are seeing progress in certain areas where the behavior and attitude and decisions of local political jurisdictions are very important to the health of the park.

"We’re encouraged at a number of places where the local communities are a lot more park friendly than they used to be and they’re willing to compromise and take into account the values of the park when they make decisions about zoning, and development and lights.”

Too, the Park Service itself can make sounder decisions in the name of ecosystem protection, he said. In Big Cypress National Preserve, for instance, NPCA is "involved in a lawsuit with the Bear Island Unit where they opened up an ORV trail recently that we think is going to have an impact on panther habitat."

"So, some of the decisions there are within the control and jurisdiction of the federal government, others are not. But the other thing this tells you is give the Park Service not only the responsibility, or make it clear they have the authority and responsibility, to address those issues," the NPCA official said. "They can’t go and tell everybody what to do, but your superintendent certainly should be out there speaking on behalf of the park. Give them the backing, which did not happen when (Interior) Secretary (Gale) Norton was in office, clearly, to challenge those decisions. Sometimes things like when a new coal-fired power plant is proposed, the Park Service clearly has the authority to challenge that. ... They’re often, if not prevented, they’re strongly discouraged from doing that.”

While it's too early to predict what the next administration will hold in store for the National Park System, Mr. Tipton is cautiously optimistic the parks will fare better under it than under the Bush administration.

"We certainly look forward to working with either of these administrations based on what we know now, and we certainly feel like there’s plenty of challenges that were left behind by the Bush administration,” he said.