Next Thursday, August 25, marks the 100th anniversary of our National Park Service. As we celebrate, we need to make sure our parks are even more vibrant and protected 100 years from now.
What author Wallace Stegner called “America’s best idea,” was simple, but unprecedented anywhere in the world: treasured landscapes should be preserved and protected from private interests for all the public to enjoy, in the form of national parks.
Artist George Catlin is credited with birthing the notion in the early 19th century. Decades later, it began to take hold. California protected Yosemite Valley, and in 1872 the federal government created Yellowstone National Park, the world’s first.
Twelve national parks and more than 30 years later, on August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson finally signed into law an act to create the National Park Service, a national agency desperately needed to maintain trails and enforce protections for the nation’s public lands.
In the early days, the private interests that threatened pristine landscapes were those of inexorable western expansion and development. Frederick Law Olmstead and other conservation leaders anxiously wanted Yosemite to avoid the fate of Niagra Falls, where every overlook was controlled by a private landowner who charged a fee for entry.
Later, dams, mining, logging, and even archeological thieves threatened natural areas. In part for that reason, throughout their history, the creation and even maintenance of national parks and monuments have not been without controversy, drawing protests from loggers, developers, miners, and even some politicians.
Yet it’s impossible to imagine the American landscape or American life without our parks, seashores and monuments. More than 400 public areas in every single state draw hundreds of millions of visitors of all stripes each year to camp, hike, fish, and paddle. They provide valuable wildlife habitat, just as Padre Island National Seashore here in Texas has helped save the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle from extinction. They shelter our drinking water supplies, just as the Grand Canyon and other parks help keep the Colorado River clean for the tens of millions who drink from it in the Southwest.
Too many of our parks are threatened and are falling into disrepair
But 100 years later, many of the challenges the National Park Service was created to address remain.
Toxic uranium mines threaten the doorstep of the Grand Canyon. The oil and gas industry has tried to drill right outside the Everglades. Hazy air pollution threatens visibility at Big Bend and Guadalupe Mountains National Parks. And some in Congress are pushing to sell or transfer our parks to the highest bidder, and prevent new parks from being created.
At the same time, too many of our parks suffer from lack of upkeep. Since 2005, the service’s budget has been cut by half a billion dollars – leading to long term staff losses, closed facilities, and the growth of the $11.3 billion backlog for deferred regular maintenance. Facility and maintenance needs in Texas total $294 million, including $88 million for repairs in Big Bend National Park and $7 million for the San Antonio Missions.
Protecting new and existing parks for the next 100 years
There’s no better time than the 100th anniversary of our national park system to redouble our efforts to protect our country's most spectacular natural areas. Our top priorities this Centennial include:
Castner Range National Monument. The Castner Range is a 7,081 acre former Army artillery facility east of El Paso in the Franklin Mountains. The range features a wonderfully diverse Chihuahuan Desert ecosystem with dry arroyos, natural springs, and diverse wildlife including 62 bird species such as eagles and hawks and mammals such as mountain lions, foxes and rabbits. Establishing a national monument, and cleaning up any undetonated ordnance, would create significant recreation and eco-tourism opportunities for nearby El Paso.Historian Douglas Brinkley recently noted that protecting this "gorgeous swath of the Franklin Mountains would constitute a huge conservation achievement." We're urging President Obama to transfer the range from the Department of Defense to the Interior Department and establish it as a national monument.
The Grand Canyon. With its massive size, colorful walls, and breathtaking views, the Grand Canyon is one of the most amazing places on earth. But while the national park itself is protected against destructive activities like mining and drilling, the area surrounding it is not. That puts at risk North America’s largest old growth ponderosa pine forest, dozens of unique and endangered species such as the California condor and bighorn sheep, thousands of sacred Native American sites dating back millennia, and the Colorado River itself -- which provides drinking water to more than 25 million people downstream.
As the price of uranium climbs, so too does the pressure to mine around the canyon. Indeed, within the last year an old mining claim has begun to be developed just six miles from the park’s South Rim. To prevent future mining and drilling from further harming this region, we’re urging President Obama to designate 1.7 million acres around the park a new Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument, a move supported by the public and a broad coalition of environmental groups, businesses, and Native American tribes.
These monuments are just two at the top of our list, but Bears Ears in Utah, Gold Butte, the Central Coast of California, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and many other special places deserve protection, as well. All would fortify the already-incredible conservation legacy of the president, who’s safeguarded more land and sea than any other president before him with the creation of 23 national monuments to date.
Finally, if the National Park Service has its way, more Americans than ever before will visit our parks this year to celebrate the Centennial. But will our parks be ready with adequate facilities and enough rangers? When Congress returns from its long summer recess, we’ll be urging at least $1 billion in funding to address the substantial maintenance backlog to protect our treasured parks, trails, and recreation areas for the next 100 years.