How healthy and sound is the National Park System just five years out from the centennial of the National Park Service?
It’s a question that arises frequently, though for most of us perhaps only in consideration of how clean restrooms are, or how easy it is to find a parking spot, or whether campgrounds are well-kept or obviously overused.
And there have been so many dire pronouncements about the underfunding of the Park Service and the steady growth of its maintenance backlog that it is easy for one to become dull to the warnings.
But what would you think if you heard that at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore development along the coast of Lake Michigan was actually altering the formation of the lakeshore’s dunes?
Does it concern you that at San Juan Island National Historical Park in Washington state illegal collecting of archaeological artifacts is known to occur, yet the park has no monitoring program in place to stop the problem?
And did you know that, “(T)here exists a pervasive assumption among the public, Congress, and some National Park Service administrators (past and present) that the primary mission of the agency is the protection and conservation of natural resources and scenic wonders — and that heritage properties and material culture are of secondary importance, or worse, a regrettable diversion of time and funding”?
These are some of the findings contained in a report out today from the National Parks Conservation Association through its Center for the State of the Parks, an analytical arm of the parks advocacy organization.
Since 2000 the Center has looked at the natural and cultural resources and management staff of 80 units of the National Park System. Amassing the results of those 80 studies has produced a troubling picture of the park system.
In short, the analysis finds that the National Park Service at times has placed a greater priority on helping visitors enjoy the parks than on protecting the resources within those parks. Beyond that, the studies show that inadequate funding has taken a toll not just on protecting the cultural resources themselves, but on providing the staff needed to tend to those resources; demands on resources from outside parks are impacting those within parks, and; climate-change effects are challenging the agency’s ability to cope with them.
“Our national parks have been around for almost 100 years, and they are more popular than ever with families flocking to visit them every summer. But many people don’t know about the threats that increasingly impact the wildlife, water and air within our parks,” says Tom Kiernan, NPCA president.
“The historic sites that tell the story of the Civil War, the civil rights movement and the other chapters of America’s history are also suffering. This is a turning point in the history of our parks, and we must not allow our generation to break the promise of our parks to future generations,” Mr. Kiernan said in advance of the report’s release.
The 68-page State of America’s National Parks report, building on the findings of the Center’s 80 previous reports, comes often to conclusions that the National Park System is far from being the world’s shining example of how to preserve the nation’s most wondrous, culturally significant, and historically important settings.
“National park cultural resources are often ignored and consistently underfunded, many natural resources are being degraded, and throughout the National Park System conservation efforts are failing to keep pace with the forces that threaten resources,” states the report.
“... The Center’s research findings are distressing to anyone who cares about America’s national parks. Natural resource ratings ranged from ‘excellent’ to ‘critical,’ but most parks -- 66 percent of those we examined for natural resource conditions — earned an unimpressive ‘fair,’ indicating signs of degradation and vulnerability to continued degradation,” adds the report. “Cultural resources fared even worse: In 91 percent of the parks surveyed, cultural resources were in 'fair' or 'poor' condition. None merited an 'excellent' rating.”
Here's a short overview of the report's findings:
State of the Parks: Natural Resources
* Air pollution is harming not only park visitors particularly sensitive to airborne pollutants, but impacting natural resources.
* Invasive species in some cases are crowding out the natives.
* Climate change, which is exacting sometimes subtle changes to park landscapes, is expected to greatly alter some familiar landscapes: glaciers are expected to vanish from Glacier National Park before 2030, the namesake Joshua trees are expected to be driven out of Joshua Tree National Park by higher temperatures, and Apostle Islands National Lakeshore is expected to suffer from warmer water in Lake Superior that could lead to more algae growth, poorer water quality, and fewer species now considered to be native.
* Human impacts, such as seemingly unobtrusive power transmission corridors, pose threats to wildlife corridors and vital habitat.
* Water quality issues ranging from pollution and demands on watersheds that threaten to deprive habitats of life-nourishing moisture to altered water temperatures important to fish and other stream-dwelling life.
“Assessing a wide sample of national parks across the country, the Center examined available data for 25 different water characteristics, including temperature, sedimentation, and levels of metals, nutrients, and organic waste,” the report said. “In 28 of the 61 parks we evaluated for natural resource conditions, water resources were in ‘fair’ condition; 23 had water resources in either ‘good’ or even ‘excellent’ condition. These results indicate that many park waterways are pure enough to maintain ecosystem function and visitor expectations, but some parks contain severely degraded aquatic habitats resulting largely from human activities and pollution of waters outside the boundaries of the park.”
Park units identified by the report as struggling with water-related issues included Point Reyes National Seashore in California, where water diversions made to create pastureland for grazing impacted salt marshes; Great Basin National Park in Nevada, where proposals by Las Vegas to divert groundwater possibly could affect the park’s springs and seeps; and even Indiana Dunes, where its dunes are suffering from surrounding development that “has altered the transport of sand and the processes of natural dune construction.”
While there have been some successes in improving air quality, such as the recent announcement from Tennessee Valley Authority that it will phase out 18 “highly polluting coal-fired electricity generating plants” over the next seven years, the Center concluded from its studies that air visibility issues at parks such as Grand Canyon, at-times unhealthy ground-level ozone concentrations at places such as Shenandoah and Acadia, and sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide pollutants at places such as Joshua Tree and Great Smoky Mountains continue to be problematic.
“Some Americans are surprised to learn that national parks are exposed to the same pollutants from smokestacks and vehicles that dirty the air in urban areas, and the air quality in some national parks, including Shenandoah, Great Smoky Mountains, and Joshua Tree national parks, is often just as degraded as it is in nearby cities,” the report’s authors note. “The Center’s assessments found that air quality was ‘good’ in 11 parks (18 percent) and ‘excellent’ in 11 others. But 27 of the 61 parks assessed for natural resources (44 percent) demonstrated air quality resources in ‘fair’ condition, 10 (16 percent) had ‘poor’ air quality, and two (3 percent) had ‘critical’ air quality problems.”
State of the Parks: Cultural and Historic Resources
The report cites cultural and historic resource woes ranging from viewsheds and landscapes being impacted by development to artifacts affected by “decay and damage.”
In some parks, “outdated scholarship” has left out key stories involving “women, African Americans, American Indians, Hispanic Americans, and others,” the report maintains.
“Overall, researchers found that cultural resources in the National Park System — considered the most important to our country’s heritage — are in serious trouble. In fact, these places and collections are being maintained in a condition well below the level that the National Park Service itself has deemed appropriate,” the authors wrote. “In 91 percent of the parks we surveyed, cultural resources were found to be in 'fair' or 'poor' condition. None merited an ‘excellent’ rating. And the weaknesses are widespread. The problems affecting cultural resources occur across park designations and across regional divisions.”
Reversing those weaknesses should be just as important and vital to the Park Service mission as stewarding natural resources, the report said.
“With two-thirds of the parks having been established because of their historic and cultural resources, and with significant cultural resources at all of the parks, it’s time to give cultural resources equal billing. Moreover, as the National Park Service strives to reach new audiences and make our parks relevant to new generations, the enormous collection of heritage properties and collections contained within the parks may offer the best opportunity to connect all Americans — not just the nature lovers — with 'America’s best idea.’”
State of the Parks: Recommendations
Recommended fixes for these problems include many ideas that aren’t new or startling.
* The National Park Service needs to be better funded, in part to reverse a 25 percent decline over the past decade in “qualified and trained people overseeing the parks’ cultural heritage."
* More funding also could provide better monitoring and inventorying of resources in the National Park System: “With too few park staff to watch over them, park prehistoric sites and battlefields are looted and destroyed, historic buildings are vandalized, and museum collections are left to deteriorate.”
* More money is needed to make significant inroads into the Park Service’s estimated $11 billion maintenance backlog. While the $750 million the agency received via the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provided much-needed cash for projects, much more remains to be done, the report notes.
“Out of 77 parks assessed, 20 reported deferred maintenance costs in excess of $1 million each; West Virginia and Maryland’s Harpers Ferry National Historical Park alone estimated $59 million in deferred maintenance and rehabilitation costs,” the report notes. “Many parks, however, do not even know what their deferred maintenance costs are; more than a dozen of the assessed parks with historic structures were unable to provide figures. So the recorded total for the system likely falls far short of the actual need.”
* Return native species to parks where they’ve disappeared.
* “To build ecosystem resilience to climate-change impacts, Congress should increase funding for land and water restoration initiatives, targeting lands and waters in and around national parks.”
* “The National Park Service should increase data collection and analysis on the impacts of climate change, use the parks as observatories to advance understanding of the consequences of climate change for natural and cultural resources, and take action to mitigate the damages that climate change can produce.”
* Have the Park Service work with state regulators as well as the Environmental Protection Agency to improve air quality in the parks through better enforcement.
* The administration in Washington needs to “enforce existing laws to reduce threats from adjacent lands, including resource extraction, air and water pollution, and development that impair ecological functions, fragment wildlife habitat, and degrade natural or cultural landscapes."
* Park Service managers should work with the managers of adjoining public lands to the betterment of “natural ecosystems and watershed health.”
* The park system needs to be expanded to encompass lands “required to implement climate change adaptation and mitigation, and under-represented themes of American history and cultural diversity.”