When the federal government recently shut down, our national parks became headline news, as public access was temporarily and at times questionably restricted. While many advocates have since begun to tout public support for parks as a reason to create new units and increase funding for the agency in charge of them, they overlook the most significant threat to our successful stewardship of these national treasures.
Those who believe the federal government should expand its land ownership rarely acknowledge a critical truth: It cannot properly manage the lands it is currently entrusted with. In other words, while the National Park Service may be willing to expand, its ability to do so is another matter.
The agency has an $11.5 billion maintenance backlog — well over four times its annual discretionary budget — which suggests that its principal priority should be its current portfolio.
A good analogy for this situation is a home mortgage. If someone cannot afford to pay their mortgage, it wouldn’t make sense for that person to take on the costs of another residence — let alone several more. Yet that is exactly what is being proposed by those who seek new congressional parks legislation. Following this “more is always better” strategy would not make us grand conservationists, but instead increase the likelihood that some of our most valued landmarks will fall further into disrepair.
Asking taxpayers to pay for all of this is not a solution, either, though it has also been proposed. In theory, the federal government could dramatically ramp up the National Park Service’s budget; we could provide it with enough funding to clear its maintenance backlog and stockpile more land every year. But in reality, with our nation continuing to face steep deficits and record debt, there is hardly space to make that happen. Our fiscal issues should compel us not only to reassess the National Park Service’s current budget priorities, but also to seek new and alternative funding for the park system.
Here are several ideas for how to accomplish that — through small actions that could make a big difference to the future of these vital lands.
First, we should seek to expand private donations from outside organizations and other friends of national parks. I consistently hear stories of bureaucratic obstacles that many would-be benefactors face when they seek to volunteer their time and resources. When an individual or group is so inclined, we must make it easier for them to give.
We should also consider allowing for the tasteful recognition of private donors who are willing to pay for specific maintenance backlog projects — perhaps through the naming of a room in a visitors center or a plaque on a bench. As a subset of this, we should look at the creation of individual park endowments as an additional mechanism that can help raise private dollars.
Next, I believe we must take a close look at current uses of funding, including the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). We spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year to acquire additional federal lands, but none of that funding is applied to the maintenance backlog. It is counterintuitive to keep adding more lands that must be maintained each year, when the lands the government already owns have so clearly proven too much for the National Park Service to handle. Allowing a portion of LWCF funds to be directed toward park maintenance would put a substantial dent in the backlog.
Finally, we should explore the structure of the recreational fee. Some parks charge entrance fees, while others do not. This needs to be re-examined for fairness — and to ensure that appropriate revenue is being raised. For example, the National Park Service estimates that charging for parking on the National Mall could raise $2 million a year — a substantial sum that could be used to better maintain that area.
I write this as a supporter of our parks — as someone who enjoys visiting them and who is firmly committed to preserving their natural splendor. But I also recognize that if we want the crown jewels of our public lands to remain “America’s best idea,” we need to own up to our responsibility to maintain them for future generations with some fresh approaches.
• Murkowski is Alaska’s senior senator, serving since 2002. She is the ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Senate Appropriations Interior subcommittee.