What Are The Top Issues Confronting The National Park System?

Air pollution in parks such as Shenandoah is just one of the problems facing the National Park System. Photo courtesy of Air Resources Specialists, Inc., via National Parks Conservation Association.

What are the top issues confronting the National Park System? A slew of answers could be tacked onto that question, ranging from sprawl outside park boundaries and habitat fragmentation to pollution.

The other day someone pointed out a list on National Geographic's website, and while it's certainly a good list of candidates, there's no apparent date to which you can attach the list. The fact that the story mentions "392" units of the system somewhat dates the list, as there currently are 394. Still, the authors came up with a nice Top 10:

* "Untold Stories" stemming from the vast archival resources of the National Park Service that are collecting mothballs somewhere due to a lack of space to display them and curatorial staff to catalog them and tell their stories.

* "Crumbling infrastructure." This is in reference to the Park Service's estimated $9.5 billion backlog of maintenance. Still, the infusion of more than $750 million through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has made some inroads into this backlog.

* "Wildlife Management." This is certainly a key issue in light of fragmenting habitats and human pressures through development that are impacting wildlife from Everglades to Denali.

* "Foreign invaders." Exotic species -- plants, animals, insects, fish -- all are creating problems in various corners of the park system.

* "Adjacent development." See "wildlife management" above.

* "Climate change." Impacts of an altering climate already are being noticed in the parks, from the melting glaciers in Glacier National Park to bug infestations in Rocky Mountain, Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and other western parks made possible by warmer weather.

* "Water issues." There perhaps is no better example of what happens when natural water flows are replumbed by humans than the struggling "river of grass" in Everglades National Park.

* "Air pollution." The National Geographic article mentions Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but you could easily add Acadia, Sequoia, Grand Canyon, and Mesa Verde to the list of parks impacted by air pollution, whether it arrives in the form of high ground-level ozone levels, particulates, or acid rain.

* "Transportation Troubles." The article links this to poor roads in the parks but much progress has been made, and is continuing, in parks such as Yellowstone, Sequoia, and Great Smoky.

* "Visitor Experience." This entry hinges on how people enjoy the parks. Debate continues to swirl over how appropriate different uses -- snowmobiles, ORVs, overflights, mountain bikes -- are in the parks, and yet these forms of recreation are popular with many visitors.

There certainly are other strong candidates that could be added to this list. For instance...

* Diversity in the Parks. If overall visitation is weighted towards any one demographic, such as Baby Boomers, who will advocate for the parks when the Baby Boomers fade away? Strides are being made in this area as evidenced, for instance, in efforts being made by Yosemite National Park staff to interest more visitors of Hispanic descent in the park.

* Overall funding. This perhaps should be at the top of the list, for as long as Congress fails to adequately provide for the parks the maintenance backlog will continue to grow, stories will go untold, species will suffer, natural, cultural and historic resources will be impacted, and visitor services will decline.

* Under-staffing. It can be argued that there are not enough full-time, professionally trained staff in the parks, whether they be interpreters, law enforcement rangers, or curatorial staff. Volunteers are great, but they should complement, not supplement, full-time staff.

* Employee recruitment. Surveys have shown that NPS staffing, overall, is tilted toward white males. If visitor diversity efforts are to succeed, it would seem that diversity in staffing is important, too.

* Political interference. Under this you could list politicians who try to legislate management of the parks and require the Park Service to spend incredible amounts of time and dollars studying prospective park units that on first blush probably don't deserve to be added to the system.

* Illegal immigrants. Whether the source is drug runners or illegal aliens traveling through Southwestern parks such as Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument or Saguaro National Park or Mexican drug cartels setting up marijuana groves in Sequoia, Yosemite and even North Cascades National Park, these are serious problems that are threatening park visitors and staff and impacting park resources.

Any other threats you would place on this list?


Losing access to "Future Generations" because of outside influences.

Losing dollars meant for improvements to lawsuits that are nothing but lawyers preying on the environmentalist groups agenda.

Losing touch with the future generations that we are supposedly saving the park for.

The number one problem is that there simply are not enough National Parks. In addition to those units in the system that do not enjoy Park status, there are places in our country still not within the system at all. Regardless of all the other issues, the first step always has to be to get the treasured unit into the system. Then figure out how to resolve all the other problems. Some of them go away just by becoming protected.

Protection is a keyword. Right now I am lobbying for the upgrade of our first National Preserve, the Pinelands, to National Park status. The Pinelands need to be protected for many ecological and species survival reasons. Preserve status does not guarantee such protection. Before moving on I strongly suggest that the Traveler write a post to educate the readers about the differences in status of Park, Preserve, Historic Site, etc.. This would be good to know so that responses to questions like this can be more direct and appropriately applied.

I do not want to sound naive and cause folks to believe that by simply acquiring national treasures and then applying Park status will make all our problems go away. But I would like to entertain a perspective on how such an approach can leverage the effect we desire. I am in the camp of believers who like to see our treasures protected in such a way that:

1) they look like they did before significant human intrusion (I refer more to land than sites of course)
2) we leave them alone and let nature take its course as far as management is concerned (just like it was before we humans showed up, the land inherently took care of itself, balanced itself, and carried on without our help)
3) which means that sometimes we have to learn the "Yellowstone lesson" the hard way. In the Pinelands for instance, fire is a way of life for the ecosystem. Literally, without fire, certain species would not live. Right now we conduct controlled burns. Long ago we left those things to chance by lightning strikes.

Plant succession is a natural cycle. In our efforts to preserve, we sometimes intervene and try to impede or prevent this cycle. This commercial approach to management may in the short term keep the paying hordes coming into the parks. But the shortsightedness of the approach in the long term has effects that we cannot measure or imagine. But we can imagine the untouched past and learn some lessons from it.

The Pinelands was not always the pinelands we know today. And we don't have to go back millions or even thousands of years to see the difference. Large parts of this wonderful land used to be under the ocean or make up its ever-changing beachhead. We all love the Jersey Shore and we pay the Army Corps of Engineers millions of dollars each year to rebuild the beachhead that the mighty ocean naturally sweeps away. We do this for economic preservation. What would the shore be without the Ocean City Boardwalk? Well in the case of National Park preservation, we need to ask that kind of question too.

What would Yosemite be without the Falls? Well shucks folks I can tell you that. I was there this summer and they were dry as a bone. Happens every year. Might happen more often if significant drought comes along. Even a good earthquake could change the face of Yosemite. And we would have no control over such an event. There is no management plan for the course of nature.

I have been a seasonal park ranger for the National Park Service for five years (working winter and summer) I have a B.S degree in Natural resource management and the Park Service has spent a lot of time and money training me. I have been trying to get a permanent job with the Park Service since before I went to college I have put a considerable amount of time and effort towards this goal. I also happen to be a non veteran white male. Is it a service to the Park Service and the American people to hire some for a permanent job that has no prior experience or degree in a related field, because they happen to be a minority or a white male veteran? I am getting a little older and the seasonal life style is starting to become unpractical, if I do not get a permanent job soon I am going to quit working for the parks and all of the resources the parks have devoted to training me will be lost( I know a lot of seasonal rangers in this same situation). I care very much about protecting the parks; I have worked with a lot of vets and minority hires who do not really care about the parks, to some it is just a job that is very hard to get fired from. (I have also worked with some that work very hard) The number one greatest thing facing the Parks is lack of funding, the number two is people not doing their job, or not performing their job well.

I see the main problem being Funding. I do not mind seeing the NPS growing and adding parks like they seem to do regularly, but it is hard to add parks with a declining budget.

Anonymous at 8:30 certainly brings up some very valid points.

I concur with Matt Stubbs, and would add, that it is difficult to support additional funding to our National Park System when there is a contengent of people that would eliminate some of us from the equation simply because they do not understand or agree with our philosophy of life. I actually feel, at times, that they would just as soon eliminate people from the Parks altogether. I speak, of course, to the situation at Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreational Area. In the case of Cape Hatteras, instead of putting forth effort to accomodate customary access to the seashore while accomodating concerns for wildlife, its lets just eliminate access. I know there are those that will take issue with that statement but that is my opinion.
The point I am coming to is that the NPS needs cooperation from all, not adversarial conflict. Why would anyone in their right mind want to support an agency that would take that support and give it to those wishing to eliminate their use of a park in the manner which has been the custom ? Not I.
So, unless some attitudes change, I could care less if the NPS gets the funding it needs. If attitudes do change, I will be one of the first to offer support.
If anyone wants to understand the issues at Cape Hatteras, There is tons of documentation available. It rivals the Obama health care documents in volume.

Ron (obxguys)

I am struck by the fact that all of the challenges are caused by someone outside the NPS. Surely, there must be at least one topic where the NPS has made its own mistakes?

National Parks Traveler has written at times about personnel management problems, including bad managers and poor organizational structures. The problem of seasonals, ably pointed out by Anonymous, is connected. How would the insiders here fix these problems?

Bob, the one that comes to mind is the fact that an ORV rule was written and released to Washington for completion, but was never followed up on by the NPS and then the NPS sat around until a lawsuit in 2007. In this instance the NPS is totally responsible for this complete issue that is so hotly debated today. This includes the monetary losses, forclosures, closed beaches, and the monies paid to the eviro lawyers who sued the park which could have been used for better purposes instead of buying a mercedes for some yuppie lawyer who has never visited a National Park.

Fragmentation of ecosystems is the most obvious effect of encroaching development around parks that are inadequate to preserve mobile species. Of greater concern in the future will be the rise in the levels of poaching not imaginable today. Of wildlife and plants, of fossil resources, of minerals and archeological resources, anything that that can be sold. If American living standards decline, and I think they will, the have nots will resent the existence of unexploited resources while they live deprived lives.


That statement is a bit leading about the ORV rule not being followed. I don't know for sure, but I would guess the law passed by the Nixon administration was not very well thought out and CAHA did not address it until they got sued because they knew it would be a firestorm of discontent. I am not defending the parks disregard for the law, but ya got to admit, they had a darn good reason for avoiding the issue. And in this instance, can you blame the enviro's for suing the park for not following the law?

Anyway, this thread should be about how to make the parks better.

"Untold stories" is the one that rings my bell, partly because it is so true and partly because it is potentially so easy to answer. Every park, and I mean EVERY park, has many stories to tell. Many are different facets of the main reason for the park's existence, but many, while tangential or peripheral or even totally unrelated to the park's mission, are still there and still of interest to someone out there. I like to think of the parks as a 3-dimensional mosaic of America, with layers and layers of stories to be told.

To me, the best way to make those stories accessible to those who are interested in them is via the Internet. The more of that archival and curatorial material that can be put online, the more people will have an opportunity to access the information in the care of the NPS. What a great way to build constituency for the parks, without visitor pressure on staff and resources!

"Anyway, this thread should be about how to make the parks better."

I believe that is exactly what Matt and I are all about. No disrespect. I do not know matt but, I can assure you he loves Cape Hatteras National Seashore recreational Area as do I. And that includes all it's creatures. There is no one that will do more to preserve the beauty and resources there than the people that love it the most and that certainly includes the vast majority of the fishermen/women (Most of whom use ORV's for access). We want to be the major contributors to the future of the park, yet we are looked upon as tho we wish to destroy it. Can't anyone understand that ?

Ron (obxguys)

I see the biggest threat to be indifference.

We have our new Congressional overlords, hell-bent on ruining the government, both in terms of perception ("the government can't do anything worthwhile") and literally through defunding darn near everything the government does (except prisons, the TSA, and war, it would seem).

This spite will spill over into the parks as casual indifference to the environment, natural and historic preservation, park upkeep, and staffing.

I so wish the entire NPS could be turned over to a public trust away from the federal government. Make it an NGO or something, let it raise funds through entrance fees, private donations, trust funds, environmentalist collaborations, etc.

Left in the hands of the Tea Party and our current government, the NPS is doomed.

Tear out every single paved road.

Employee morale. Lack of funding.

Wow, Barky (Submitted by Barky on January 5, 2011 - 6:17pm. ), you sure hit one on the head there!

Although I have more confidence in NPS as now constituted, maybe your idea,

"I so wish the entire NPS could be turned over to a public trust away from the federal government. Make it an NGO or something, let it raise funds through entrance fees, private donations, trust funds, environmentalist collaborations, etc."

deserves serious consideration. Especially with people like the current Utah Congressional delegation making decisions.

Barky has a great idea!

"I so wish the entire NPS could be turned over to a public trust away from the federal government."

I suggest not stopping at just the NPS turning away from the Federal Government. The implications are euphoric :):) !

"* Employee recruitment. Surveys have shown that NPS staffing, overall, is tilted toward white males. If visitor diversity efforts are to succeed, it would seem that diversity in staffing is important, too."

I find it very offensive for someone to tell me that a big problem for the NPS is lack of minorities as employees. As with Anonymous above, I too am a non-veteran white male who worked hard to gain the skills, degrees and knowledge to perform my job. I had to jump through many hoops to gain my position after watching the NPS offer it to a minority without any hoops to jump through. Without a doubt the thought process of hiring someone just because they are a minority will pave the road to destruction of any agency. Common sense tells you to hire the best person for the job no matter what race they are. Its reverse discrimination is offensive and it’s not right. It just so happens that the majority of people who want to dedicate themselves to a life of protecting our national treasures just happen to be white. Is that so wrong? I don't really care what race the guy or gal is working beside me, I just want them to be the best person for the job. Until we as a nation can get off this stupid race thing and start hiring on merit, we all lose out.

I also agree with the vast majority of people.. Funding is a huge issue. Lack of funding and proper management of the funds the NPS receive. First off, kill the end of year spending. It's wasteful and stupid. I don't need colorful post it notes on my desk nor do I need another 1000 file folders sitting in the closet. What I do need is proper equipment, reliable vehicles, better services for our visitors and common sense when it comes to budgeting. The age old fear of losing your budgeted money because you didn't spend every last penny is just plain dumb. Why not reward the parks who manage to achieve all of their goals while coming under budget. Remove the fear of losing money next year, because you saved a buck this year. Allow parks to bank the extra dollars for future projects without losing future budgeting.. This would prevent the need for Stimulus Pork or at least reduce it. I know this goes against all accounting practices ever invented, but maybe that was the change we needed in Washington instead of the change left in our pockets.

Why is there a need for more rangers with enviros wanting to restrict national park access to the non-handicapped, in perfect shape, adult only environment.

I liked your comments, Another Ranger! You represent the thoughts of a broad swath of the middle ground that voted in November. It's so logical and fresh....it's threatening to many that embrace and have prospered in the disfunction :).
Rock On, Rangers!

Another Ranger and George, the reference to diversity in the workforce was not to imply rules or standards should be weakened in hiring, but rather that the NPS somehow find a way to cultivate a more diverse pool of qualified candidates system-wide in all fields within the NPS.

Just hire the best and allow those that got the positions realize they got it because of their own achievement and not diversity quotas. There's much evidence that opportunity is available for everyone given that one realizes that it's not a right but determined by their own efforts. That's a cultivation method I could embrace. Individuals planting a seed of encouragement in another individual rather than the government spending dollars even if we had them to spend.

Thanks again for the great discussions!

Bureaucratic and regulatory overload that has lead to inertia. Even the simplest things seem to be in the too hard to do category.

Leaders, decision-makers and managers that are far too risk averse and afraid to make even the simplest decision without having consensus. Too much CYA.

I don't really think funding is an issue. If you eliminate most of the BS that we spend 80% of our time doing, there is plenty of $$$ and FTE to get the job done and then some.


No comment but Tim Geitner just announced that $14 Trillion in DEBT isn't enough.

Strange isn't it, when you are not personally responsible for repaying, sure makes it easier to spend. Our Government has been notorious for unnecessary spending. They study things to death, review it when its dead, hire consultants to investigate why it died, have overlapping agencies, Assistants to assistants who then have assistants, You know where I'm going with this. For every dollar that actually results in something constructive, two have already dissappeared in bureaucracy. It's not the Rangers or the Park Superintendents. It's the multitudes before them. And, on top of that, half of everything winds up in a court room where we pay lawyers to tell us what we can and can't do. But, if we eliminate all that waste, just think of all the people we will add to the unemployment rolls. Sorry I brought this up.
I was brought up with a philosophy, which I tried to pass on to my children. Try each day to, in some way, be productive and produce something of value. Be it something useful that wasn't there yesterday, but is there today. Make something better than it was. You can't make it happen the way our Government does things. The founders of our great nation were productive in their own right before they took on the job of shaping and running this country. I think therein lies the answer. They learned how to produce before they became politicians. I think it would be difficult to do it the other way around. I also think there are way too many politicians in positions which were never ment to be held by politicians. Too many IOU's developed during campaigns and otherwise.
I also feel for those such as Annon. 8:30, they often end up the victim of circumstances resulting from the above. Too many come before them. They become insignificant in the overall scheme of things. Sad, because they often would be the producers.

Just some thoughts

Ron (obxguys)

Over the years park attendance has been increasing. A large part of that has been possible because the number of people in the middle class was also increasing, including an increase of minorities in the middle class. But the trend now is for a massive movement of wealth toward the rich, corporations moving more and more jobs overseas. The middle class is being destroyed, wages are dropping, and I suggest the possibility that many Americans in the future will no longer be able to visit national parks if these trends continue. We may not see a drop overall in visitation as more visitors from Europe and especially Asia come to the parks, but if primarily the wealthier citizens in the US can visit parks we will lose the support of the American people and the Tea Parties, Ayn Rand enthusiasts, and the (mostly right wing) greedy will exploit this to try to turn parks over to the states and to private interests.

Not sure I follow that, Grizz.

Why would anyone want to turn the parks back over to the states, From which they came, unless the Federal Government is not living up to the agreement made with the people when the states gave the parks to the Federal Government?
Americans will always be able to visit the parks. It's just a matter of what they will be allowed to do when they get there. Don't know if we need to worry about those greedy right wing folks as much as we do the AS & DOW & Wilderness Groups. If any of them get everything they want, it really won't matter anymore.

Trying to maintain Middle Class
And Right Wing For Now (guess that makes me greedy)


From the inside looking out I'd say recruitment is a significant problem, we recruit for the wrong reasons and then scratch our heads and wonder why we have a retention problem. 2-3 year funding authorities would save the NPS billions. Recognizing that our thought process is nearly 15 years behind the power curve, accept it, overhaul the system and let our high performers do what they do best (technology would be my first big hit). Understand inclusion and diversity and communicate it appropriately so our employees understand it's not just a number thing. Training, leadership development, standards that apply to all and systems of accountability that mean something. Make sure we can handle what we have in the system befor taking anything else on. Most importantly really mean it when we say our employees are our most treasured resources....

Thanks Kurt!

Anti-federal government rhetoric is higher than I can recall. It ramped up starting when Reagan declared that the federal government is the problem. Current rhetoric from the tea party types is that the federal government can't do ANYTHING right. Joe Miller, the tea party candidate from Alaska thought Denali should go to the state. Some years ago there was a spate of talk about giving national parks to the states, and I recall that some Arizona folks wanted the Grand Canyon and a few of the other parks that had high visitation. The state park director in South Dakota (I think it was) said that the state parks there did a much better job than the NPS and used as his example that in their state parks the forests were "healthy" because they allowed logging and national park forests were not "healthy."

I am not going to get into a big argument here about politics, but I am predicting that we will see more anti-federal government rhetoric and action in the coming years and I can forsee that attempts to get national parks turned over to the states will be part of that, and if we lose support from the people it could happen and I predict that as the middle class shrinks more, folks won't care about parks as they now do. And, as their are fewer opportunities for minorities to move up into the middle class we will not be able to gain their support.