THE BLOG
02/08/2012 03:48 pm ET | Updated Apr 09, 2012

Taking Care of America's Best Idea

National parks are very popular because they protect the unique and extraordinary places of history and natural wonder that define our country. They provide affordable vacations for American families, and they attract visitors from around the world. National parks are also economic hubs that provide jobs inside and outside their boundaries -- these are full, part-time and seasonal positions that exist because of tourism. A recent study commissioned by the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) found that national parks ensure more than four dollars in economic returns to local communities for each dollar invested.

More than a hundred economists recently wrote the president, urging him to "create jobs and support businesses by investing in our public lands infrastructure..." The Western Governors' Association also gathered at Joshua Tree National Park to emphasize the growing economic importance of tourism and recreation to the West. And the president recently mentioned several national parks in promoting tourism as a multi-billion dollar industry. It should be no surprise that eight of the top 25 U.S. travel destinations are managed by the National Park Service. When national parks are supporting more than $13 billion in spending annually and nearly 270,000 jobs, and when they clearly offer the potential to contribute even more, it is fair to ask whether we are investing enough in our national parks.

As reflected in a recent Harris poll, national parks are among the most popular federal benefits and services the American people enjoy. But the reality is that it costs money to protect these places we all own, so they can be there for our grandchildren to enjoy. The rangers who guide us, teach our children and protect our safety need to be paid. Biologists who monitor and protect wildlife and the volunteers who maintain trails need tools and materials. Restrooms must be maintained and visitor centers staffed, and all of this requires funding.

But for all that our national parks deliver, they don't cost us much in the grand scheme of things. The nearly four hundred units of the National Park System only cost us less than 1/13th of one percent of the federal budget. But these sacred places that inspire our identity are falling by the wayside in the midst of congressional budget battles.

Congress passed a funding bill last month that cuts the budget for national parks for the second time in two years, with more than $165 million in total cuts since 2010. This very likely means that park superintendents will have to cut the number of rangers in the parks in order to address the reality of unavoidable costs such as cost-of-living adjustments for staff, increases in rent, utilities, and more.

These constraints come on top of years of fiscal challenges for our national parks: insufficient rangers and other staff critical to protecting resources and serving visitors; a deferred maintenance backlog reflecting substantial disrepair in so many parks; and a backlog of land to purchase inside the parks from willing sellers. With these shortfalls in funding, the last thing that our national parks can afford is additional cuts.

The congressional supercommittee's recent failure to agree to savings measures could trigger decade-long across-the-board cuts, slated to start next January. If Congress does not find another route to achieve savings, it will have damaging consequences for our national parks and the many communities that rely on them.

This 9% across-the-board cut could devastate the operating budgets of park superintendents, forcing painful decisions likely to mean few rangers to greet people and protect resources during the busy season. It could also mean reduced hours at visitor centers, closed campgrounds, and even temporary park closures. The National Parks Conservation Association recently highlighted these threats in our comprehensive report, Made in America: Investing in our National Parks for our Heritage and our Economy.

Across-the-board cuts can damage the things people most treasure, which is why the threat of these cuts was intended to motivate Congress to strike a more strategic balance that the American people deserve. If you were forced to find savings in your personal budget, you would not make cuts across the board. You would not tell your bank that you are reducing your mortgage payment, you would not stop packing lunch for your children, nor would you let your roof continue to leak. You would be more strategic.

As our report notes, recent polling shows that with the National Park Service 2016 centennial in mind, 85% of voters surveyed favor giving national parks enough funding so they are fully restored and ready to serve the public for the next 100 years.

We must address our unsustainable deficit, but we are also in the midst of a recession. In any economy, it just doesn't make sense to compromise America's "best idea," our national parks. Tough budgetary choices must be made carefully, with an eye towards protecting our most fundamental and beloved assets for our children and grandchildren. Some things are not worth sacrificing. Congress can do better.