Top 3 Threats to the National Park Service

The topic for this post comes from an email exchange I had this weekend. The question debated was where the Yellowstone snowmobile issues ranks currently in terms of overall threat to the National Park Service. One fellow had suggested that it may be the most important issue for the NPS. Part of this defense is that "as goes Yellowstone, so goes the rest of the parks". Another opinion suggested that motorized recreation (as defined by the Yellowstone snowmobiles) used to be the biggest threat, but that today there are bigger issues. Neither one of these folks was me, by the way. And so, in light of this argument, I give you the issues that I think are the top 3 threats. Of course, these represent only my opinion, but I'd be curious to know if you agree or disagree. What do you think the 3 biggest threats are?

#1) Massive Disinterest
Seems like an odd choice for the biggest threat, doesn't it? But this one is like a giant wrapper for me that contains a lot of issues that circle in and around each other, issues like shrinking budget, shrinking services, shrinking visitation, growing entrance fees, and growing other fees (front country camping, backcountry camping, commercial interpretation fees, among others). Regular readers may know that the issue of growing entrance fees really bugs me. There are people out there that will write letters to the editor, or write their congressional reps to complain when an entrance fee doubles, but I have a feeling that most travelers will just decide not to return to a park after they've been asked to pay $20 to enter, or when they realize that for $20 they don't get to see a Park Ranger, or when they realize that for $20 the restrooms are either closed or under maintained. When folks lose interest, protection of the resource gets pretty difficult. It would be hard to justify more federal dollars on an agency that nobody cares about. When parks are not relevant, the issues of protection would seem as foreign to an American audience as issues involving Kazakhstan. There is evidence of this growing disinterest. For the last 10 years, visitation across the park system has seen a steady drop, and there is circumstantial evidence that advocacy groups, like the NPCA, are enduring a shrinking membership over the same period. Who will be left to say "stop" when charges are made that the Park Service isn't fulfilling its responsibility as land steward, and that the job should be outsourced to the private sector to manage?

#2) Privatization
A few months back I posted a roadmap towards privatization. On one end of the map is what the parks used to be, fully public. Your taxes took care of everything. But in more modern times, parts of the park system have crept down the scale. There are still some parks where no entrance fee exists, and no concessionaires are present. But, we have come to accept that at a vast majority of parks, fees are the norm. At many parks, NPS interpretive services have been outsourced to concessionaires offering those same services for a fee. And, moving much closer to the fully private model of park operations, park units like the Presidio in San Francisco, and Ft Hancock in New Jersey have leased their historic building space to for-profit enterprises. A resident of San Fran, as quoted in the Chronicle, said, "I'm really unhappy about what is going on there. The Presidio is being treated as a piece of real estate. I don't think it's proper to have a big office complex in a national park." All this, on top of an article which appeared very recently in the Washington Post that revealed a decade ago the NPS received no outside money, but that today, corporate philanthropy represents 12% of the agency budget.

#3) Motorized Recreation
This is the Yellowstone issue that affects the entire park system, and yet the snowmobile issue seems so odd. Every scientist that has studied the noise and pollution that are happening with snowmobiles in the park have said that their impact goes directly against NPS policies for noise and pollution. And yet, the snowmobiles are still in the park, with the approval of the American Recreation Coalition (ARC), the Director of the Park Service, and the President of the United States. And truly, if the doors remain open to motorized recreation in Yellowstone, the possibility remains open for every other park in the nation. Jet skis, motor boats, ATVs, dirt bikes, helicopters, low flying airplanes, and the rest would love to have a home in the parks. On this issue there really should be no compromise. These machines go against the very nature of what parklands are supposed to protect.

OK, there are my three. There are certainly more than 3 threats to the parks though. What else should be on this list? Do I have these things in the right order? I'd like to know what you think.


Thanks for posting. Good job on this.

This is definitely going in the Yellowstone Newspaper.


Maybe threat one (lack of visitation) will directly decrease threat 3 (too many cars). I just did a bunch of research on reasons why people aren't visiting the parks, and to be honest, I think it's great that numbers are down. Parks exceeded their carrying capacity. I'll be blogging on this tomorrow, so stay tuned!
Whether parks are, or are not, exceeding the carrying capacity, the direct consequence of declining visitation is going to be a massive effort to lure additional visitors to the park and to transform the parks so that they more perfectly mimic commercial theme-parks.

The belief of those setting public policy is that theme-parks sell, and if you want more customers (which they most assuredly do), then offer them a product they will look upon as representing good-value for the price and one capable of providing high concentrations of instant, pleasurable (though perhaps only plastic) memories.

The travel-tourism industry, working in partnership with the NPS, will capitalize upon the visitation ISSUE . Whether or not declining visitation is good for the park resources is not the issue at hand.

I suspect the real issue is --- how will declining visitation be spun by those who are aggressively pushing specific agendas and how will this spinning result in the transformation of National Parks along preconceived lines.

I do not for one moment believe that declining visitation, AS AN ISSUE, will result in bringing benefits to the parks as Ranger-X suggests.

Ranger-X, please appreciate that I don't disagree with you about the potential benefits of declining visitation. I am merely suggesting that when this ISSUE plays itself out, the result will be MORE privatization and MORE motorization.

As for the matter of "disinterest" --- if parks are transformed so as to better mimic outdoor disneylands, it is possible that additional customers will come.

Is this a desirable goal? - I think not.

Is this transformation the goal to which the agencies and their private-sector partners are now striving? - Absolutely.
>>Is this transformation the goal to which the agencies and their private-sector partners are now striving? Absolutely."

That does, indeed, appear to be the not-too-discreet handwriting on the walls of the Interior Department. Going back to the original question, I think one easily overlooked threat, albeit one that underlies all of the above, is the mindset of what we as a society want our national parks to represent and reflect.

I suppose I could be labeled a purist, one who sees national parks, battlefields, and monuments and all the rest for what they were created for: places of inspiration, of outstanding scenic beauty, of hallmarks of our nation's history. I do not see them as theme parks or as revenue generators for the federal government. I think it easily could be argued that they were never intended to be money makers.

But as long as the powers that be have the mindset that they should be money makers, and as long as the general public buys that contention, that's what we'll get, and the real reasons these places were set aside will be obscured, left to fade into oblivion.
Wow, four of my favorite online park prognosticators have weighed in on this issue. Thanks guys.

Maybe visitation trends isn't the best bellwether for tracking interest in the parks. I can be just as interested in a visit to ANWR, even though I may never visit, as I would be disinterested in Yosemite having to hunt for a parking spot.

I think I need to clarify my "massive disinterest" argument. As Kurt points out, it may have more to do with the sense that an attitude is changing, specifically the attitude that parks fulfill a special role in our country. Doesn't it feel as if that attitude is changing? It may be impossible to pin that change on any single thing, but as Scott points out, it may be an industry push to redefine what that park experience should be. As a nation, every time we see an ad on TV which illustrates an SUV or a dirtbike splashing through a stream or cruising under natural arches, our perceptions of typical outdoor experience change, and our expectations of the parks change as well.

Unfortunately, it does role back around to money. The industries creating those ads are the industries which would like to spend money servicing park guests. And the parks are in desperate need of money, some would say, starved under pressure from the very industries hungry to 'help out'. But this new relationship will only serve to foster the changing perception of the purpose of parks.
Lots of good comments already! I certainly agree that you've identified 3 key threats. Some of the above discussion touches to one degree or another on the theme of the book, "Last Child in the Woods." During the years since my own NPS career started in 1971, I certainly saw a gradual change among many park visitors in attitudes about and understanding of the natural world. That problem also extends to appreciation of historic resources and our national culture.

Here's one example: Last year my wife and I helped with a trip to Washington, D.C. by a group of 50 students in a college choir from Texas. The students had 5 days in the city, and in between various performances and the usual tours had several free afternoons to wander all of the sights around the National Mall or anywhere else in the vicinity of downtown Washington.
Anyone who has been there knows you could spend a week just seeing the various Smithsonian facilities, not to mention other national landmarks.

On their second day in town, I discovered one student had lugged his laptop computer with him into town, so he could spend his free time playing video games. His explanation was that there was "not anything to do" in Washington, D.C.

I don't have the answer, but I fear that attitude sums up how much some (most?) of the current generation is out of touch with the values that our parks have represented in the past. Finding a way to deal with this cultural shift seems critical to the future of our national park system, if it's to continue to bear any resemblance to the system most of us have known.
I agree with the people that feel that attitude has changed. I grew up with the fact the only way I could see Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, was to go see it, There was not a travel channel that showed you all the best parts. Don't get me wrong the travel channel is great, for me it would help me to decide what I wanted to see, but with the internet you can travel anywhere, and not leave your house.

The next item I wish to add is the recent poll about restricting acess, I agree that if there is one main road and maybe the shuttles would be good, but if I had come from out of state, say California just to see the Grand Canyon only to find outI was over the daily amount of people allowed for the day. I don't think I would be a happy camper. I did go to Carsbed Cavern, they have a self pace tour. There is a ranger that keeps an eye on things. I not sure what the answer is. some day I will make it to the parks, It is on my list of things to do in my lifetime.