We heard it again earlier this month when President Obama designated three major sites in the Western U.S. as national monuments: We should stop adding new national parks and other protected areas until we can pay for the ones we have now. Others have suggested hiking visitor fees so that those who use the parks and national monuments pay the freight for maintaining them.
There is no denying that many of America’s national parks and historic places are in disrepair today or offering shortened visitor hours, fewer interpretive guides, and other services that should make a visit to one of our national crown jewels a special experience. This is a tragedy, but it is no reason to give up on preserving more of what makes America unique.
The reason we add a park is because something of outstanding value to our nation’s heritage is in danger of damage or outright loss. That imminent destruction is, most often, human plans to pave it over or tear it up in the quest for minerals or real estate development. Precluding the possibility of new parks says that we have already protected everything that will ever be worth protecting. That’s preposterous.
Of course it would be better if we addressed all unmet national park and historic site goals. We should rebuild roads, replace roofs on historic buildings and restore unglamorous, but vital, utility systems. We should also underwrite scientific evaluation and monitoring that will assure the landscapes and the plants and animals on them can survive and even thrive.
It is troubling that, as a nation, we lack the political will to foot the bill to protect and restore our shared heritage. This isn’t a question of available funding. The amount of what we need to do to fix our parks is staggering when compared to anyone’s household budget, but minuscule when compared to what it costs to run a mighty nation. We can afford it. However, we have been choosing, politically, not to do so.
Why not just jack up the cost of entering a national park? In fact, fees create a cost barrier that excludes the youth and lower-income people that are under-represented among our park users today. Thus, they limit who can benefit from the opportunity to experience firsthand the natural and historical heritage that makes America unique.
It may be true that fees are a minimal barrier to those who reach remote Yellowstone or the great parks of Alaska, but most park areas actually lie within easy reach of urban populations, for whom an admission fee must may be balanced against child-care costs or household expenses. Admittance fees make the public pay for what their taxes should already cover — access to their National Parks. Raising the fees to higher levels is the same thing as putting out the “unwelcome mat” to millions of Americans.
Creating new parks and designating new national monuments is a priceless opportunity to protect special places and tell our nation’s most heartfelt stories for generations yet to come. So stop acquiring parks? Stop protecting new national monuments? No. The impulse to preserve the best of those places that make America unique is fully appropriate, no matter how shabbily our government chooses to treat them at the moment.
Maureen Finnerty is the chair of the Executive Council of the Coalition to Protect American’s National Parks, a group of former NPS employees that represents over 30,000 years of experience managing and protecting National Parks. A 32-year employee of the National Park Service, she is also the past Superintendent of Everglades National Park and Olympic National Park.