Reader Participation Day: What is the Greatest Threat To Our National Parks?

It seems not a week goes by without some issue being identified as a threat to the national parks. One week it might be funding woes, another week pollution, another diversity concerns, and then, of course, there's climate change.

So, from the following list, which do you think poses the greatest threat to our national parks? And if your concern is not on the list, please tell us what it is.

* Funding issues. It's been often reported that the National Park Service has a maintenance backlog of about $9 billion. And, of course, there's the issue of annual funding in general for the Park Service. Is Congress spending too little on the parks, or is the Park Service not as fiscally fit as it could be?

* Pollution. Whether it's ground-level ozone at Acadia or Great Smoky Mountains national parks, air quality in general at places such as Shenandoah and Sequoia national parks, or heavy metals and acid rain deposition in the Sierra, Rockies, or Appalachian parks there are plenty of pollution issues that can be cited across the National Park System.

* Diversity. This is a two-pronged issue, as there are concerns over both a lack of diversity in park visitors and within the NPS ranks.

* Climate change. Is this, as Park Service Director Jon Jarvis has said, "fundamentally the greatest threat to the integrity of our national parks that we have ever experienced"?

* Visitation. This also is a two-pronged issue, as some worry that the parks are not being seen by enough visitors, while others argue that places such as the Yosemite Valley, the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, and Old Faithful in Yellowstone are overrun with visitors in the summer months.

* Inholdings. There are many cases across the National Park System where pockets of private property exist within the borders of a national park. And earlier this year there were news stories about a developer who was buying up parcels to build multi-million-dollar homes on them. Is the Park Service's inability, due to lack of funding, to buy these parcels harming the integrity of the parks?

* Motorized recreation. How great a threat are snowmobiles, personal watercraft, and off-road vehicles to national parks?


In my humble opinion, the single biggest threat to our National Park System is --- the Republlcan party.

The biggest threat is to do nothing. If we allow debate to overcome action, questions to overcome the obvious, and commitee to overcome commitment, then we all lose.

Hmm, tough one.

I am in the camp that, when it comes to the National park System, preservation trumps low visitation, recreation, diversity, and other "people issues". So I don't rank those highly on the list.

Climate change is too big to consider as an issue for the NPS to solve. Sure, it can be used to illustrate the problem to the masses, but having the NPS spend any significant effort on it is, IMO, not an effective use of their time and money. It needs to be solved by bigger organizations (but it won't, c'est la vie).

Overall, I believe our pollution issues nationwide are improving, especially if you look at the long-term from the 70's to today. This isn't to say pollution isn't a problem, especially for our ocean-facing parks, but as I see it this is a problem in decline, not in growth (I now patiently await the vitriol on that statement ;-) ).

Inholdings are a thorn in the side, but just that: a thorn. Honestly, there are very few impingements on a park that actually interfere with the enjoyment of them. This is problematic for some battlefields, sure, but overall, I'm not as concerned about them (unless such development could cause environmental problems like changing water tables, introducing pollutants into rivers & streams, etc.).

Because I don't want to cheat and call a tie, I'd vote for overcrowding & motorized recreation (the same issue IMO) as #2. Even with my snide comment in the first sentence, people still have a right to visit the parks, yet today they want to do it in a more :ahem: irresponsible manner. The NPS has to make preservation a priority. If motorized vehicles are a true risk to preservation, take a hard line and ban them. If parks are simply getting too many visitors (meaning quantity is a problem, not bad behavior), they need to take steps to build facilities that can handle the throng without damaging the park they are protecting.

So I would say maintenance backlog is the #1. I say that because a) it directly affects the preservation purposes of the historic parks, b) some of the backlog is directly related to safety issues, and c) it indirectly affects the preservation purposes of the natural parks if such facilities are not adequately handing the number of visitors.

Just my take.

I would say mismanagement or lack of management is the greatest threat. Any activity that doesn't support the NPS mission should be scrutinized and looked at very hard. And yet in many parks there is obvious evidence of mismanagement.

The mission of the NPS places natural resources ahead of people. The challenge for Park Superintendents is rooted in what I summarize as politics. Many Superintendents cave to surrounding community pressures and loose site of the mission. Many Superintendents allow themselves to be influenced by mayors, senators, congress, etc... And yes, Superintendents run the park. They set the leadership example and are fully responsible for implementing the NPS mission.

An example: The Great Smoky Mountains National Park held its 75th anniversary a year or so ago. The Park actually hosted a Symphony in Cades Cove out in the fields. A Symphony! Complete with a band shell and all the regalia that accompanies such. This is an area that is supposedly being managed in a restorative state.

I think the best action that supporters of parks can take is to hold Superintendents accountable for supporting their own mission. There are lots of tough decisions to be made in that position, but if each decision is shown to be supporting the mission, there is lots more black and white and much less gray.

Don't forget about invasive species such as the Asian Jumping Worm in the Smokies that you discussed the other day. Or the Hemlock Wooly Adelgids that are decimating hemlocks across the east. There are a number of others, such as mountain pine beetles in Colorado and Wyoming, Balsam woolly adelgids, kudzu, wild boars. The list is quite long, and the problems they cause are arguably more immediate and more concerning than the ones listed above.


Simply put, it's congress. While it's easy to heap most of the blame on the republicans, democrats can be faulted for their inability, at times, to be a cohesive group on such issues.

The Republican party.

Over development and use. Especially by those that neither appreciate nor respect them for the natural wonders they are.

For those that answered "Republican Party" I would like them to identify specific programs of the "Republican Party" that threaten the parks.

I agree with the others here.
It is us, our hubris.

Industrial tourism, motorized recreation, and over-development, especially in Gateway communities.

Just ask anyone who resides in E TN who makes the commute to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The traffic coming into and departing from the tourist towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge is a disincentive to visit. Overcrowding also affects the visitor experience in places like Yosemite Valley and the Grand Canyon Village at the South Rim.

On the other hand, to escape the crowds, all one has to do is park the car at a trail head and go for a hike. A few hundred yards is all it takes to find relative solitude. But, one still has to fight the traffic on the return trip. Ugh.

We should come to the realization that "enjoyment" does not mean enjoyment in any manner that you as an individual desire. There's enjoyment that leaves little or no (or manageable) impact on the parks, and then there's enjoyment that degrades both the parks' vitality and enjoyment by others.

Nicely put Barky... awesome insight. The backlog f maintainence in the Parks is shameful. To have let these gems erode is a waste of the investment. Climate change is to great an issue and would be a waste of resources. Over crowding is an easy fix, drop campsite and back country permits by 25% and up costs/fees by 30%. And drop motorized activity by 40%. Done deal. Cleaner, quieter and less crowded w/ out losing much revenue.

But the maintainence backlog would do something else not mentioned. It could up the NPS labor force by 20% if these areas which need attention got it. WPA/CCC type situation.

"Over crowding is an easy fix, drop campsite and back country permits by 25% and up costs/fees by 30%. And drop motorized activity by 40%. Done deal. Cleaner, quieter and less crowded w/ out losing much revenue. JRM"

Wow JRM, is it really this easy? Or, would there be a tremendous political backlash from those who would lose real or perceived revenue resulting from a drop in motorized tourism?

If addressing overcrowding were as easy as you claim, we'd already be rid of the private car in Yosemite Valley, and we would allow only hiking, biking, and shuttle traffic along the Cades Cove loop in the Smokies.

I was going to make the same comment! The first thing I thought of: Republicans are the greatest threat to our National Parks (and the enviroment, any wilderness area, wildlife)!!

Imagine how much less pollution there would be if we were only allowed to replace coal fired power plants with nuclear power?

The Europeans have managed to utlilize this solution on a large scale....

Thinking outside the box for a moment, I would add that perhaps the greatest threat to the parks is a national system of values that places a very low priority on the importance of preserving lands and landmarks of significance to our natural and cultural heritage.

Ecoonomic collapse, prolonged warfare, and dominance of political ideologies which persistently give development, resource extraction, and commercialism priority over resource preservation can each contribute to a degradation of the overall value that our society places on the future of our parks, monuments, and historic places.

In an attempt to reach out to a wider segment of society, I also contend that it would be a mistake for the NPS and other park advocates to ignore their base supporters, those who return for more than a single one-hour, one stop visit, those who spend a week or more camping and backpacking on a routine basis, those who work especially hard to get to know their park on intimate terms. In many ways, these enthusiastic base supporters of our parks become ambassadors for the national park idea to the rest of America and the world.

The fact that most people choose to do something durng their limited free time other than visit a park prevents massive overcrowding, but it is also a clear sign that a national park experience is not of the highest priority in the lives of many Americans. On the other hand, for those who do take the time and who commit personal resources to devote to a park visit, I hope that their experience while in the park will always be rewarding, refreshing, inspirational, and part of a life-long memory.

Let's begin with all the oil, gas, mining leases granted right on the doorstep of several National Parks during the Bush/Cheney administration. At least one high ranking Republican (Boehner or McConnell) has already mentioned preservation money as something that can be cut from the budget. Very, very little discussion concerning preservation of wilderness areas, endangered species, National Parks and Monuments ever takes place when Republicans are in power. How can we forget "Drill, Baby, Drill", the song of the McCain/Palin

Every taxpaying citizen owns the National Parks, but sadly, huge chunks of the parks are CLOSED to the PUBLIC. Elitist biologists deem some areas to be too important for the public to see. NPS staff are the only ones who ever witness some of the most amazing aspects of the parks. Unless a particular area is truly unsafe for visitors or untrained persons, they should be open. We do not need laws to protect us from ourselves. If a visitor gets lost in some remote corner of a park, it isn't a problem worth closing an area because we are PAYING for RANGERS to find them. National Parks are open to the public, and it is no concern whether white, black, blue, or orange people visit them. The issue, more importantly, is that all those orange, black, blue, and white people are able to see the park once they arrive. They should never find a closed gate in a park that they OWN.

I resent people blaming Republicans. I am a Republican (Conservative). I love and support the National Parks. The only danger is when nature is put ahead of the best interests of humans. I do NOT mean that people are free to do whatever they want in and with National Parks. Of course there have to be rules & regulations. I firmly believe that too many vehicles are a danger to parks and that the ones who bus people in from outside the park are on the right track. Yes, it is inconvenient, but I believe necessary. I strongly defend the National Park System and hold parks dear to my heart, but to blame any group for their problems is ignorant!

See this page from the National Parks Traveller:

Although it specifically calls out certain Republicans as both supporting the parks and certain others for not supporting the parks, there are no examples of Democrats not supporting the parks. It probably has less to do with actual programs than it does with support of individuals of Congress. Republicans can't live on the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt forever.

"On its face, this seems like an easy question to answer. After all, former U.S. Rep. Richard Pombo, a Republican from California, didn't appear to be a big fan of national parks, and at one point supposedly joked about selling off units of the National Park System or at least opening them up to mining.

"And then there was former U.S. Rep. Jim Hansen, a Republican from Utah, who wouldn't have minded if Great Basin National Park were jettisoned from the system."

I find it very troubling that anyone would suggest that a political party is a danger to National Parks. No one is going to shut them down, open them to extractive industries, or anything else. Regardless of what they say in a campaign, it is poltically impossible to shut down our national treasures the way it is described by partisan fear-mongers. People keep mentioning Great Smoky Mountains NP as an example of a park in danger. Who is endangering it? Democrats from Ohio and Michgan who have already ruined their own wild areas. If you want to protect a park from hemlock wooly adelgids, gypsy moths, or bedbugs, the only option is to keep out firewood, pets, and even people from other areas of the country.

Habitat fragmentation.

I see that anon at 11:03 is following the normal liberal rhetoric.He complains about oil and gas leases near parks but provides no evidence they endanger the parks in any way. Further he identifies "one high ranking member" to condemn the entire party. Anon at 12:33 does the same. One person at one point "jokes" about selling the parks and he is ready to condemn the entire Republican party. And of course there is the "Drill Baby Drill"
but again the attack dogs can't link that statement to any actual risk to the park system.

Wow. The diversity in opinions here is as diverse as our parks themselves.

pkrnger -- re: your thinking outside the box, that was an awesome comment and spot on.

Arguments like this have been going on ever since the Hayden party toured Yellowstone and will certainly continue until Yosemite has been leveled by erosion. Perhaps the only hope we have is that, in the end, the collective wisdom of our democratic system will prevail. Even though we Americans seem constantly to be tearing at one another's throats, when the dust finally settles we somehow manage to find at least a reasonable solution. Not always perfectly perfect, but at least sort of reasonable.

Pogo, Walt Kelly's little possum said it best, "We have met the enemy, and he is US."

We, the people, who enjoy the parks are the parks' greatest threat. Our impact on the wildlife and park environment is rearely good. One thing I experienced just recently at Zion National Park was my first introduction to a MANDATORY bus system for visitors to use. Before I got there, I thought I would hate it, but once there, it was terrific. Not only was it super-convenient, but it minimized the normal congestion in the park. Having been to Yellowstone a couple of times, I could only wish the park service would establish a bus system for that park and others that are frequently visited. It would be so much better for the wildlife and the environment, and would give visitors more time to enjoy the park than deal with road congestion and bad drivers!

Bureaucracy, both Democrat and Republican. The park service has taken personal ownership of the parks and forgotten that they were established for the use of the people. Every time we visit the major parks like Yellowstone, Zion, Yosemite, Grand Canyon and others we find closed trails, roads, campsites, etc. Questions about these are answered with lots of meaningless words which attempt to give some real reason for the closure or whatever, but never really sound as if the person doing the telling has a clue. Most of the Ranger types nowadays act as if you being there is a real inconvenience to them. I truly feel that in 30-40 more years most all areas of our parks will be closed to the general public. You will be able to drive the roads and maybe stop at selected spots, but things like back country hiking, fishing, camping, etc will be a thing of the past.

I think the greatest threat is failing to realize what a precious resource we all have in the varied units in the park system. We have a great treasure and if we fail to pass it on to future generations in a condition where they will also be able to enjoy it is a great travesty.

In my opinion the issue of relevancy to the American public is one of the biggest challenges that the NPS faces. It's obvious that most on this board are park users and supporters, sadly that's not the case across society. As demographics continue to change, there are huge segments of our society that either know nothing about the National Park System or worse they care nothing about it. The parks will survive only as long as they remain relevant to the public.

On November 17, 2010 at 11:07pm, Colorado Cowboy wrote:

"We, the people, who enjoy the parks are the parks' greatest threat. [...] One thing I experienced just recently at Zion National Park was my first introduction to a MANDATORY bus system for visitors to use. Before I got there, I thought I would hate it, but once there, it was terrific. Not only was it super-convenient, but it minimized the normal congestion in the park."

I'm with CC. I think the free bus system at Zion is a remarkable success. Yosemite is less so, perhaps because the cars are allowed farther into the park. But what a difference from the major areas of Yellowstone, where there are no buses. Traffic jams are common -- when someone spots a mama bear and her cubs along the road, 20 cars park along the road for the photo-op. A park ranger stands in the road trying to keep traffic moving, but the congestion detracts from the experience of visiting the parks.

Chains, gates and padlocks.

Personally I agree with "Barky" I think he summed up my feelings. I also would comment that the buses at Zion are amazing and I did not miss having to find parking at each stop. At Glacier we drove around a parking lot at "Trail of Cedars" for about 20 minutes waiting for someone to leave. But I actually enjoy the bear jams and would miss the photo opportunity if i just rode by in a bus.

Greatest threat to the park system as a whole? The sluggishness and waste of a bureaucracy. The cry of GREAT THREATS (on a macro level) to the entire park system will only encourage the bureaucractic monster to waste loads of money trying to fix the unfixable. Superintendents should operate on a micro (one park/problem at a time) level. By making huge Call-to-Arms proclamations we risk encouraging park managers to spin their wiheels on grand sounding, political career-building themes that change with the tides and solve nothing. Meanwhile, each park has its own environment/habitat niches, vistor safety needs, and visitor enjoyment ideals that are dying a death of a thousand cuts.

If you really want to help...pick one small problem in one of your favorite parks and do some creative and critical thinking about what you can do to fix it or how you can get that park's superintendent motivated to work on it.


A bureaucratic monster has indeed risen up over the parks, just like those around many other government agencies (states included). However, how do you get superintendents at parks such as Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon or Great Smoky to put blinders on to political pressures?

It seems that we as a society have created this political, and legal (dueling lawsuits), problem and expecting or even hoping that one superintendent can address issues such as snowmobiles, ORVs, over-crowding, lodging pricing, etc on a micro level is overly optimistic.

I agree with this comment about mismanagement or lack of management. I wouldn't limit it to Superintendents although they must hold the foundation of the problems. I cannot help but recall the NPS decision to respond to employees' concerns about poor supervision by providing "required" training courses for all supervisors and leaders. Almost immediately, many upper management exempted themselves as not needing such training. Good leaders do things first!

Whether it was Mather or Albright doesn't matter, the advise that we must "know the land on which we stand, and stand fast" is still critical advise.

I would add one additional problem. The American Public still doesn't know what the NPS is or what we do. Regardless of the various efforts to share our message and mission, too many do not know and that will always be the greatest hurdle to overcome as we seek funds, support or good employees.

Kurt: We are the political pressure. Or at least part of it. And we are overwhelming the NPS with all our myriad of complaints and desires. Regardless, I do believe Superindents have the capability to at least mitigate management issues such as snowmobile use, over crowding, and the like. If I am being overly optimistic to believe superintendents can take some, if relatively small, actions on theses issues at the park level, how overly optimistic is it to believe they can do something about a problem on a national or worldwide level?

Regarding tackling huge global crises such as "ending poverty worldwide," there has been a demonstrated lack of success despite billions of dollars of aid spent. Several critical thinkers in this arena are suggesting that individuals taking action on one small problem at a micro level has been and will be more successful at helping people. These same thinkers make solid arguements that the current paradigm of throwing millions of foreign aid dollars at overwhelming problems is actually making things much worse!

For more insight into this perspective may I suggest The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good by William Easterly. Also John Stossel broached this topic not to long ago:

There are many analogies here that conservationists should heed.

We are indeed the pressure, Andrea. Yellowstone, Cape Hatteras, Yosemite and on and on and on are proof of that.

As for superintendents having success with issues such as over-crowding, how well did Mike Finley succeed with that in the Yosemite Valley?

I would agree that there are some issues that can be handled from the confines of a superintendent's office, but issues such as motorized recreation and carrying capacities in terms of visitors I would argue require strong guidance, if not outright dictated policy, from the director's office.

But since the director is a political appointee....


I agree with your last point. As someone who has always enjoyed the outdoors, I was astonished to discover how very little I knew about the national parks. For instance, I was only vaguely aware that the Everglades and the Grand Canyon were national parks. But the Ken Burns documentary changed all that; since last fall, I've backpacked through 15 national parks, and supporting our parks has since become a mission for me. I wonder if an expanded national campaign to promote the parks might be a good idea.

Fred and Justin,

The key mission of the Traveler is to both educate the public about the national parks, and to nurture advocates for the parks. You can help us with that mission by sharing our site with your friends and contacts, either by pointing out the url or forwarding our weekly e-letter to them.

Justin, you backpacked through 15 parks in the past year?!? Congrats to you. Maybe we should entice you to contributing field reports.

the biggest danger is the way the parks are ran by the NPS, that is obvious!

Ok, I've finally decided the greatest threat to America's Parks are anonymous posters lobbing unfounded proclamations. Actually, that's the biggest threat to human existence, come to think of it.

In response to Jerry C and the similarly minded: Most likely trails and campsites are closed due to lack of money and personnel to maintain and oversee them--along with too many thoughtless visitors who wander off the trail and so destroy the landscape.

I would add nature deficit disorder and historical illiteracy to the list--who knows whether parks will even be relevant to today's children and immigrants as they grow older.

Thanks, Kurt. I'm backpacking through Joshua Tree and Death Valley this winter--be happy to file a report or two.

(And thanks so much for the Traveler--it certainly fulfills its mission.)

The insatiable demand for natural resources by a growing population

Demographers now forsee a U.S. population of 500 million. Some even toss out the "billion" word. Wood, fiber, minerals, water. The demand will trump preservation values every time.

Legislation may be enacted on a park by park basis, but it will eventually occur.

I agree with those that have brought forth the issue of relevancy. As the demographics and interests of the American population change, the parks may very well be looked on as being irrelevant. People can't care about what they don't even know about. I second the thought that as people become more and more ignorant of both the natural environment and the history of our planet, national parks will become even more forgotten by the majority of our citizens.

Linda is right that it is wrong by category to blame Republicans. The Republican Party really founded the ameican conservation movement, and many of the earliest and most effective environmentalists and park-makers were Republicans. Conservative Republicans are among the finest of these. But lately, the committee system of the US Congress has brought out the worst in the Republican Party. Republicans place on the committees with jurisdiction over the parks, the most hostile members of the Republican Party from the West that they can find. The committee staffers working for these anti-park Members of Congress are weakening the laws of the parks every day. Almost no park legislation can pass, unless it prohibits the NPS from acquiring the land within the boundary without the consent of the owner. Since very often it is the threat to the resource that created the need for the park in the first place, not permitting the park service to pay off an unwilling seller, and protect the land, means that the whole park is not protected.

We need to bring back the Republican tradition of park protection, and get rid of these hostile forces on the congressional committees that direct the work of the NPS. Most Republicans in America want parks protected.

I, for one, would definitely place "Buy Out Inholdings" and "buy new parks" at the top of my list. The most important thing is long term protection, and you must own the land for that. With the American economy in decline, there are increasing threats to reckless development, but also land costs are at their most reasonable in years. Buy all the land we can now.

To Andrea Lankford, are you worried about a bureaucracy WITHIN the national park service? Your objection does not sound like it is based on a real threat -- can you name any big initiative inside the National Park Service that resulted in the waste and destruction you fear? The Civilian Conservation Corps work in Parks? The massive 10-year effort to study and preserve parks in Alaska? The effort to preserve the historic adobe structures in the Southwest? Wilderness studies in all national parks that qualified? Vice President Al Gore's initiative to re-make government, and his golden hammers? The focus on the need to deal with the backlog of unmaintained structures? Equal Employment Opportunities? The efforts, starting in the 1970's, to represent the history of the experience of minorities in the parks, and the 'untold stories?'

Andrea, as you've said it, it just sounds like ideological speculation, like some of the un-truths said about Health Care. How about providing some real examples? the ones I can think of have made things more efficient and effective.

Greetings Kurt
I've been reading the comments about the greatest threat and although there have been many valid concerns brought up, each tends to exclude another. Since I'm in the NPS, I'd like to address this as a greatest challenge. Perhaps it is to hold on to who we are. That means making our Organic Act an organic part of ourselves. "Preserve, protect, provide."

When I started working for the NPS, Horace Albright and Freeman Tilden were still alive, still an inspiring influence. They are gone, but each succeeding generation can carry on their work. That is, we can carry it on if we understand it. That means interpreters must care passionately about interpretation, but accept that protection rangers must care passionately about protection - and vice-versa. It means resource people need to know (and need to be allowed to know) the resource intimately, maintenance needs to know the ways in which their work in a park can differ from the "outside world" and administration needs to see it all clearly enough to stand up to the unending challenges.

That's just a sampling, and none of it is easy. We can't control everything but we will do our best if each of us accepts we are a part of the whole, and that it is an extraordinary and important whole. Every part of it is something to fight for, something to live for and something which can give each of us a life to look back on with joy.