How About Some Economic Stimulus for the National Park System?

This deteriorating road in Theodore Roosevelt National Park is just one example of the National Park System's infrastructure needs. NPS photo.

With the Bush administration and Congress looking to one-up each other with economic stimuli, perhaps a little love could be shown to the National Park System. Lord knows it could use some.

Much has been made in years past of the system's enormous maintenance backlog, which was last pegged in the neighborhood of $8 billion. And, of course, there's the Centennial Initiative, which is seen as one vehicle for addressing park needs.

Well, today in Washington the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held a hearing to discuss investing in the nation's infrastructure in the name of economic stimuli. In a pleasant surprise the committee invited Tom Kiernan, president of the National Parks Conservation Association, to provide a rundown on what the national parks could use in terms of infrastructure attention. And Mr. Kiernan didn't disappoint.

"Although it is not their primary purpose, our national parks play a significant role in the economies of many communities," he told the representatives. "As Congress develops an economic recovery program for our nation, investments to improve our national parks can be an important part of the effort that benefits unique places in our country and their mostly rural communities nearby.

"As much as $440 million worth of road projects in our national parks are ready to go to construction, and can rapidly produce as many as 7,000 jobs while also renewing our national heritage and helping to revitalize our national parks for our children and grandchildren."

According to the NPCA president, twice in the past the country has made "substantial investments" in the National Park System. The first occurred, he noted, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt "initiated the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps with the goal of bringing our infrastructure into the 20th century, creating jobs, and reforesting many parts of our country."

That investment led to creation of such roads as the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park and the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park.

The next time the country made a great investment in the parks came in the wake of World War II when the country got in the mood of heading out onto the open road for vacations. That investment, under the heading of "Mission 66," was "initiated as a ten-year National Park Service program intended to expand visitor services by the 50th anniversary of the Park Service in 1966," Mr. Kiernan pointed out.

"The program focused on infrastructure projects such as roads, utilities, and visitor services. Through an investment of more than $7 billion in today’s dollars, the Mission 66 program transformed the national park system into one of the most popular vacation destinations for both American families and foreign tourists," he told the committee.

Which brings us up to today, when the National Park System is in places overwhelmed with deteriorating roads and buildings that haven't been kept up.

"It is more than half a century since those last, significant investments were begun, and the lack of sufficient reinvestment since that time is evident from examining the condition of park roads today," said Mr. Kiernan.

According to NPCA, there are more than $270 million "in 18 transportation infrastructure improvement projects that are ready to go to construction."

"When ready-to-go road projects that do not receive (Federal Lands Highway Program) funding are included, the system-wide estimate exceeds $440 million. All these projects have obtained environmental clearance and can be contracted out within 180 days," said Mr. Kiernan.

As for some of those needs, NPCA points out that the ongoing reclamation of the Going-to-the-Sun Road is in need of funding. Specifically, Glacier officials have more than $20 million in work ready to be done...but no money to pay for it, according to the advocacy group.


This is an excellent time in the United States to fund park infrastructure and enhance visitor facilities in National Parks.

Especially with the Dollar as low as it is compared to foreign currencies, there is a great incentive for foreign visitors to visit the United States national parks, and an equal incentive for American tourists to spend their money at home traveling to parks and scenic areas throughout the US.

Enhancing alternative transportation systems, to permit visitors to tour America by almost any other kind of vehicle than an automobile could also be enhanced through enlightened transportation appropriations and stimulus spending.

Historically, the NPS has actually taken a more restrictive use of transportation funding than the transportation enhancements (ICTEA, etc) legislation actually allowed. NPS wanted to sink its money primarily into western highways, largely because those highways are so expensive to maintain, and so vulnerable to damage. But the NPS, had it had the money available, could in fact have been using more for historic sites and visitor contact centers, exhibits and other ways to make it easier for visitors to enjoy national parks. Studies have shown that tourists who visit parks also spend a great deal of money throughout the United States, and contribute significantly to improving the international balance of payments, which otherwise drains money from the US.

These efforts to fund visitor infrastructure in parks can also be enhanced if parks think about providing more visitor information in multiple languages. It is striking how few national parks, in high international tourist zones, provide visitor or interpretive information in more than a couple of languages. Go to Italy or France or Japan and see tourism books and interpretation in many languages.

These investments have a huge pay-back, and it makes sense for Congress to fund APPROPRIATE national park expenditures to leverage big tourism returns.

And well-considered investments also enhance the quality of life in America.

Just consider the examples Kurt gives of the parkways built by the CCC.

Skyline Drive makes an enormous contribution to making the entire Washington, D.C. region more livable. These visits from DC-types also gives them a sense of what their work in Washington is really about, as they see the villages and farmlands, appropriate AND inappropriate development, as well as the beauty and peace available in so many places in the United States.


I agree

road, road, roads, Road, road, roads, roads, roads, road, Road

Wow! Ten uses of the word "road" in one article! Let's just rename the agency the National Parkway Service!

$440,000,000 (almost half a BILLION dollars) in road construction projects! Think of all the CO2 that construction will put into the air! Think of all the CO2 belched by vehicles driving on those roads. In one breath, global warming is a "crisis"; in another breath, let's pave roads!

Or let the roads go back to gravel and allocate that fiat money--hot off the presses--to education and resource protection. The NPS doesn't need more Monopoly money; it needs to reprioritize with an emphasis on the cheaper "preservation" over wasteful "enjoyment".

It certainly wouldn't hurt if some of that money were put into a mass transit system for the South Rim of the Grand Canyon....the one Congress has looked into in the past only to conclude it's too expensive.

It is way past time that some logic be applied to economic development projects. Mass transit systems in the parks are just one example of wise-spending, in my opinion. They get cars off the roads, negate the need for more parking lots and constantly repaving parking lots, and carry environmental dividends, regardless of whether one believes in anthropogenic global warming.

Funding for projects such as the mass transit systems that have been mentioned would be a great thing. However, let's not be entirely negative about funding badly needed repairs for existing roads. While I certainly agree that we should have concerns about new roads in parks, keeping existing roads in safe condition doesn't necessarily mean increased vehicle use - and those same roads can just as easily be used for mass transit system as for private vehicles. Work which is long overdue for the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier is a good example. That project is underway, but it sounds like funds to complete all of the necessary work are not available.

Letting roads revert to gravel, as has been suggested, simply increases maintenance costs over the long run, and anyone who has spent much time driving on unpaved roads might question if all the dust put in the air from traffic on those roads - not to mention the mud and siltation problems for adjacent waterways - is a great trade-off to pavement.

While I understand the sentiments against roads in parks, the reality is that without continued reasonable access, visitation to and public support for parks would drop off to the point that they would no longer be politically sustainable. I'm concerned that parks are already facing an increasingly serious fight for survival as competition for scarce dollars increases and the nation's population becomes increasingly disconnected from the natural world. Alienating an already dwindling support base by some of the measures suggested would not seem to be beneficial in that environment.