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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?

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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.

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