Commentary: What Would An Economic Stimulus Package for the National Parks Buy Us?
Ever since the phrase "economic stimulus" was launched last year, there seems to have been more and more clamoring for these kinds of bailouts, or incentives, or infusions of capital, or whatever you want to call them.
Conservation groups haven't been silent in this arena, either.
Not long after Traveler reported back in November that various "green" groups had collaborated on a wish list for the environment, one that had plenty of suggestions involving the national parks, we began to hear that there was work under way to outline an economic stimulus package that would benefit the environment, including the national parks.
Later this week -- Wednesday to be specific -- the groups will hold a news conference to explain what they see as "an opportunity to invest in ready-to-go, job-creating projects that would restore America’s national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, and fragile ecosystems as part of the nation’s economic recovery, as was done in the 1930s."
As an example, the National Parks Conservation Association notes that at Great Smoky Mountains National Park an investment of $4.2 million could bring all 94 of the park's restrooms into ADA compliance. At Valley Forge National Historical Park an investment of $927,615 would cover repairs and restoration of Stirling's Quarters, which was the headquarters of Maj. Gen. Lord Stirling and Major James Monroe. At Grand Canyon National Park a $15 million investment would provide badly needed employee housing in the form of eight, eight-plex multiple family housing units in an area now occupied by 10 trailers.
These are not bad things. But the NPCA's 12-page document highlighting the needs of the National Park System generates just a dollop of uneasiness.
One concern is the need to wrap the parks up as so many economic engines, that the reason they deserve an economic stimulus in part is to help kick-start pockets of the economy around the country. Indeed, in the NPCA's document subtitle after subtitle addressing proposed infusions is followed first by the words, "to create jobs," and then by the specific need, whether that be repairing a road or providing an ADA ramp to a restroom. That's all fine and good, but what happens when the economy turns around but national park funding does not? Then how might groups lobby for the parks' needs?
But then, the folks at NPCA well know that they have to sell this package to the incoming Obama administration and that in the economy's current state, well, jobs sell.
The second concern deserves to be delivered on a silver platter not just to the incoming administration but to every member of Congress: The National Park System is a key part of our national heritage, and it shouldn't have been allowed to tarnish so. Indeed, the NPCA drives that message home in its report:
These places tell the American story -- and our personal stories. These are the places where we forge family memories and in doing so, bond with our nation as a community.
Most importantly, national parks are our legacy to our children and grandchildren; protecting the national parks means that we are protecting our legacy for the future.
The National Park System is a poster child for years of insufficient investment in our nation's most significant assets.
For years, America's national parks have sustained chronic shortfalls in critical federal funding needed to adequately staff and maintain visitor centers, campgrounds, and museums, and keep parks safe and accessible for all visitors. National parks on average received only two-thirds of the needed federal funding annually -- a system-wide shortfall of $750 million every year.
If the green groups can garner an economic stimulus package for the parks, good for them. But let's not buttress that package on the notion that we should invest in the parks primarily for the economy's sake. True, the parks are indeed powerful economic engines. If you doubt that, just ask any chamber of commerce in a gateway town what would happen if their park went poof! the next day.
But national parks shouldn't need to be portrayed as economic saviors to gain our country's necessary and prudent investment. They should be properly kept up because they are central to our nation's heritage.
Now, if an economic package is approved for the parks, let's be careful with it. Let's focus on repairs and restorations and curatorial needs and not go on a spending spree of new facilities and roads.
And, if Congress deems such investment worthy, let's hope it also realizes the pitfalls of neglect and gets serious about properly funding -- not just adding to, but actually funding -- the National Park Service and seeing that our tax dollars are wisely spent. Let's hope that we one day soon no longer need to talk about the Park Service's staggering backlog or mention "Centennial Challenges" with hopes it will buy some polish for the system in time for the agency's centennial in 2016.
Rather, let's properly invest in the parks just because it's the right thing to do.