Can the national parks be saved?
That’s a strange question isn’t it?
But our national parks are at risk of being loved to death. With the nation still reeling from the impacts of the pandemic, there is an ever-increasing demand for open spaces and national parks.
In many ways, this is a wonderful problem to have – but high levels of visitation are causing overcrowding, which threatens resources and diminishes the visitor experience. The question now is how to ensure more visitors can enjoy our incredible public lands without harming the very resources that brings people to parks.
A quick bit of history:
The idea of national parks in the United States can be traced back to Abraham Lincoln, who transferred Yosemite Valley to the state of California during the Civil War to “be held for public use, resort and recreation.”
In 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed congressional legislation that established Yellowstone as the nation’s first national park “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”
In 1916, the National Park Service was created, adding an emphasis on resource preservation, setting aside parks to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for future generations.”
I am thankful that we have an administration that has demonstrated its belief in conservation, environmentalism and the protection of our irreplaceable resources. The administration has launched its America the Beautiful Plan, a decade-long challenge to conserve, connect and restore the lands, waters and wildlife upon which we all depend. One of the key principles includes pursuing a collaborative and inclusive approach to the use of our parks and public lands.
The Department of the Interior is encouraging visitors to check out lesser-known park sites, and other lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, to address overcrowding. And, admirably, public lands managers at all levels in Utah — local, regional, state, and national — are seeking ways to encourage public uses on all public lands as well.
In addition, we recently celebrated the first anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA), which established the National Parks and Public Lands Legacy Restoration Fund to provide much-needed maintenance for critical facilities and infrastructure in our national parks. Zion National Park will be using these funds to upgrade visitor use facilities, including the south campground, a critical need given the extremely high levels of visitation.
GAOA also permanently and fully funded the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) to the tune of $900 million a year to invest in conservation and recreation opportunities across the nation. This means that funding is available to expand our national parks, increase public access and ensure that lands within our parks aren’t at risk of incompatible development which could harm scenic views, water quality and wildlife habitat.
At Zion, LWCF funds are needed to protect 50 acres in the Cave Valley portion of the park. Securing this inholding will not only help protect the park’s wilderness, but potentially provide additional visitor access to that wilderness and adjacent BLM land, thus providing more space and access to the huge numbers of visitors flocking to the park.
So, the short answer to the question, “Can the national parks be saved?” is yes. But there is much left to be done.
We must ensure that parks are adequately funded and have the staffing to manage crowds. We must protect park resources but ensure that the visitor experience isn’t diminished. And it would be extraordinarily helpful to have a Senate-confirmed National Park service director to help lead the agency and ensure our parks can be saved.
The value of public recreation can be measured in dollars and cents, but the real value comes from what we leave the future generations. Congress and the White House must put our national parks and public lands first and take action to ensure they are protected.
Donald Falvey is a former superintendent at Zion National Park and current member of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks.