A bullish report on 2017 visitation to the National Park System was met with both welcome and concern, as parks across the country are gearing up for a busy summer with ailing infrastructure and staff struggling to handle the crowds.
At Zion National Park in Utah, staff already is sending out daily "tweets" on Twitter announcing when the campgrounds and parking lots are full. At Yellowstone National Park, officials are thinking of clearing nearly an acre of ground near the Fairy Falls trailhead to handle vehicles. Yosemite National Park officials are patiently waiting for crews to rebuild a section of the Big Oak Flat Road, which slumped downhill during the wet winter.
Other parks are struggling, too: At Arches National Park in Utah the main road that winds across the landscape is being repaved this summer; the opening days of the season on the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona has been hamstrung by a broken water system, which has led to the cancellation of the first 11 nights of lodging; another summer of construction on the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park in Montana will slow visitors as they stream across the park; in California, winter storm damage will keep the Devils Postpile National Monument campground closed this summer; Dinosaur National Monument in Utah also is grappling with road damage incurred during the winter months; Scotty's Castle at Death Valley National Park remains closed for repairs to damage an October 2015 storm delievered; part of the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail at the northern end of Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio is closed through March 2018. Major stabilization work along the Cuyahoga River necessitates the closure between Hillside Road and Stone Road in Valley View.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke acknowledged the infrastructure needs on Wednesday when he released a report detailing the $34.9 billion generated by the National Park System last year, when a record 331 million people headed into the parks, in part to help the National Park Service celebrate its centennial.
“With continued record visitation it’s time to start thinking about accessibility and infrastructure. Last week, it was great to see the team at Yosemite opening up areas with new wheelchair accessible trails," Secretary Zinke said in a release. "In the coming years, we will look at ways to make innovative investments in our parks to enhance visitor experiences and improve our aging infrastructure. To ensure visitors continue to have great experiences, we will remain focused on increasing access and addressing the maintenance backlog to ensure we are on the right track for generations to come.”
Unfortunately, said Theresa Pierno, president and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association, the Trump administration seems intent to reduce funding to the Park Service, not invest in the parks.
“Today’s report demonstrates once again that our national parks not only protect and preserve many of America’s landscapes and historic sites, they are also powerful economic engines for our country. It is good that the Trump administration appreciates the enormous impact national parks have on our economy, and we hope this report will encourage them to boost funding for the National Park Service rather than cutting it," she said. "Sadly, while parks are more popular than ever, they are facing many challenges, including a $12 billion deferred maintenance backlog, reduced staffing that has made it harder for parks to handle record-breaking crowds and reductions in visitor services and interpretive programs essential to the park visitor experience.
“These challenges require more money, not less, but the administration is proposing deep cuts to the Interior Department budget that, if enacted, would do lasting damage to our national parks and the local economies they support. In addition, the administration has provided guidance to federal agencies, including the Park Service, to reduce their workforce even further. If we don’t invest in our national parks, we not only jeopardize the future of these places, but also the economic future of their gateway communities."
According to the 2016 NPS Visitor Effects Spending Report, visitor spending last year supported 318,000 jobs, provided $12.0 billion in labor income, $19.9 billion in value added, and $34.9 billion in economic output to the U.S. economy. The lodging sector provided the highest direct contributions with $5.7 billion in economic output to local gateway economies and 56,000 jobs. The restaurants and bars sector provided the next greatest direct contributions with $3.7 billion in economic output to local gateway economies and 71,000 jobs.
The report pointed out that most park visitor spending was for lodging (31.2 percent) followed by food and beverages (27.2 percent), gas and oil (11.7 percent), admissions and fees (10.2 percent), souvenirs and other expenses (9.7 percent), local transportation (7.4 percent), and camping fees (2.5 percent).
Despite those bullish numbers, NPCA staff pointed out that the Park Service gets only 60 cents for every $1 it needs each year just to keep its $12 billion maintenance backlog from growing. Additionally, there are not enough rangers and park staff to manage the record-breaking crowds, with the number of Park Service staff declining more than 10 percent since 2010, the NPCA release said.