Does your congressperson understand where you stand when it comes to America's national parks? Perhaps more to the point, do they care where you stand?
Those are two realistic questions to ask, in part because this is an election year, but more specifically in light of a national poll that shows nearly unanimous support for the federal government to both protect and support the National Park System.
We can't get nine in 10 people to agree on their favorite ice cream flavor. But the poll conducted for the National Parks Conservation Association and the National Park Hospitality Association shows that nine in 10 "say it is extremely important or quite important" for the government to properly steward the parks. And that support is bipartisan, as well.
Tom Kiernan, NPCA's president, was surprised by that bipartisan support for the parks "because it was so strong! Clearly, so many folks from both sides of the aisle strongly support the parks, want to go visit the parks, think they should be funded, think it’s an appropriate role of the government. All down the line, Republican, Democrat, across-the-board strong support for the parks.
"So the strength of the support, I was a bit surprised at. Knowing and loving and sensing the parks, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised," added Mr. Kiernan during a conversation about the poll with the Traveler.
NPCA and NPHA officials hope the poll, conducted June 12-17 with a national sample of 1,004 registered voters, will both catch the attention of the presidential candidates and convince Congress of the country's desire to see the national parks properly cared for.
"Americans think the parks aren’t in good shape. Only 6 percent think they’re in good shape. So Americans are saying there are some issues in the parks," said Mr. Kiernan. "They’re worried about the funding. Eighty percent of Americans are saying funding cuts would damage the parks and visitor experience. ... Seventy-seven percent think it’s important for the next president to ensure the parks are fully restored and ready for the second hundred years.
"I think one of the key stories out of this is calling by the American public for the next president to lead this country, in the coming four years, to enhance the parks, to welcome people back into the parks, to better fund, better protect the parks."
But the poll also relayed some disturbing details. For starters, many of the respondents had little knowledge of the challenges the National Park Service faces in trying to manage the nearly 400 units of the National Park System.
"Americans don’t really know as much as we think they should about the conditions of national parks," said Derrick Crandall, counselor for the park hospitality association. "A lot of them -- 44 percent -- said they did not know enough to make a real judgment about what condition the parks were in. ... They have this image of national parks, but they really don’t know much about the national parks."
Parks Don't Offer Memorable, Affordable Family Vacations?
Perhaps more concerning is that when asked whether the parks "offer a place where families can go for affordable and memorable vacations," fewer than half of the respondents -- just 46 percent -- said that statement "definitely describes national parks."
In addressing that response, Mr. Crandall and Mr. Kiernan pointed both to the diversity of the American population, and the competition the parks have for family vacations.
"We don’t find the enthusiasm for national park visits as high among households with children as many of us expected it to be," said Mr. Crandall. "As I did more looking at it, it largely has to do with the composition of America’s 2012 households with children. They tend to represent higher proportions than the population at large of African-American and Latino Americans, and the tradition simply isn’t there, particulary for the African-American community, in terms of looking at the national parks as affordable, memoriable vacations.
“So I think what you’re seeing there is a change in the overall composition of the American population, and that’s reflected to a degree in that response.”
From his viewpoint, Mr. Kiernan attributed the tepid response not only to the competition among theme parks and other destinations, but also to today's electronic media. The parks face competition, he pointed out, from both the computer console as well as "just a limited amount of vacation time that families are getting these days."
"Some folks are seeing, are perceiving, parks as a long way away, where it takes three days to drive out to Yellowstone," the NPCA president added. "And people aren't having the time to get their entire family, because the kids are scheduled with other events, soccer, whatever. They're not as motivated as they should be because of computer stuff. It’s tougher for families to easily see the parks as an affordable family vacation. Obviously, we need to overcome that."
Still, the poll offers some hope that folks are looking to the parks for vacations: 86 percent of the respondents indicated a desire to visit a national park (including 83 percent of Hispanic voters and 89 percent of voters under 30).
Support For Parks, But Not Necessarily More Spending On Parks
What some might find interesting, and perhaps contradictory, is that while 90 percent of the respondents want the government to protect and support the parks, there's no tremendous support for increased spending on the parks. While 35 percent said too little was being spent on the parks, and 23 percent said the right amount is being spent, 55 percent said federal spending on the parks should either be decreased (8 percent of the respondents) or kept about the same (47 percent), while 45 percent thought it should be increaded.
“I would add it differently," Mr. Kiernan said when those figures were cited. "Given the whole topic these days is about cutting the budget, with the (looming) sequestration and everything that’s out there, we are going to be cutting the federal budget. Ninety-two percent (45 percent of the poll's respondents supported an increased in the Park Service's budget, while 47 percent said it should be kept about where it is) of the American public is saying don’t cut the Park Service budget, and in fact 45 percent are saying increase it.
"So, again, I think that data points to the unique role of parks in the society, that 92 percent are saying don’t do as we’re going to have to do for virtually everything else."
Mr. Crandall took a phrase from Park Service Director Jon Jarvis when addressing the matter, saying "flat is victory."
Public Support For The Parks
While one commentor on the Traveler's initial post about the poll questioned whether the American public would support a tax increase for the parks, taxes wouldn't need to be increased. Congress simply needs to reshuffle its fiscal priorities, and when you consider that the Park Service's roughly $3 billion annual budget represents about one-13th of 1 percent of the entire federal budget, it wouldn't take much shuffling to boost it.
Nevertheless, the poll did find that 36 percent of the respondents were open to either volunteering in the parks or contributing money "to build support for policies to protect and strengthen national parks."
As for charges that the Park Service has enough money to manage its parks, that the agency simply is top-heavy, Mr. Kiernan and Mr. Crandall said Director Jarvis has been working to streamline the agency as best he can.
“I think there certainly are good avenues to leverage the available spending, and the Park Service is beginning to look at those. Conservation corps, for example, the Park Service has done a study that looks at the savings to accomplishing things using conservation corps and they find a 40 percent on average savings," noted Mr. Crandall. "I think we will see economies. Clearly, we do have to rethink some of the structures, and in an ideal world, you might say that with changes in communications and everything else, things like regional offices and other kinds of things might be reconfigured. But we also live in a political world. And no matter what the Park Service management wants to do, there are constraints.”
Added Mr. Kiernan: "Kudos to Jon Jarvis. I think he has begun a series of efforts, or continued a series of efforts, to improve the internal operations, effectiveness, efficiency of the Park Service, rangers and employees. Some of this frankly has been done with some support, assistance from NPCA’s Center for Park Management, but Jon’s instituted and led the creation of a series of training efforts for park superintendnets, and leadership programs.
"They have improved some of their internal metric systems, a scorecard. They are creating communities of practice around certain topics. They have a series of programs to increase the diversity of park staff, increase the relevance of park operations. All of which touches on some of what that person is commenting on, internal efficiencies, etc., in the Park Service."
The poll, along with being shared with members of Congress, also will be used to help build a campaign to ready the Park Service for its centennial in 2016. Properly designed and implemented, such a campaign could not only adequately prepare the agency for its second century, the two gentlemen believe, but also get more Americans out into the parks.
“I think the centennial as a whole is an extraordinary opportunity. NPHA, NPCA, Park Service and others are all thinking through strategies to use the centennial in a potential marketing campaign, or some kind of outreach campaign," said the NPCA president. "I think we all do see the centennial as an opportunity for doing that, increasing the awareness and inviting all Americans to get out into the parks the next four years. We do see an opportunity there to shape that message, shape that campaign, and get it out there."
Traveler footnote: You can find the entire survey results at this site.