06/20/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

"National Park Week" is Bittersweet

The coming weekend is the last chance to get in one of the 392 national parks for free during National Park Week, April 17-25. Normally, 146 parks charge entrance fees ranging from $3 to $25. The annual celebration is designed to encourage people to visit the Parks to "connect with nature and American heritage."

The Parks get a lot of use, and they're going to get used even more.

But a flurry of recent reports, a lawsuit, and new legislation introduced last week indicate problems at some of the nation's most iconic natural wonders.

The President's Fiscal Year 2011 budget for the National Park Service requests $2.7 billion and makes investments of $35.3 million in park operations increases.

"Caring for national parks, welcoming more than 286 million visitors every year, and revitalizing America's towns and cities through our community-based resource conservation and recreation programs is the mission of the National Park Service," said National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis.

The budget increase seems justified since during the economic doldrums last year, visitors actually increased. In the first half of 2009, national parks hosted 127,728,898 visits, an increase of nearly 4.5 million over the same period in 2008, according to recent NPS data.

Each year, park visitors spend $11 billion in local economies, supporting 213,000 jobs in adjacent communities, including 54,000 jobs in the hotels and restaurants, 23,000 jobs in retail, and 18,000 in assorted "amusements." In addition, the NPS has nearly 600 concessionaires at 120 different sites, with some 25,000 employees.

According to the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's leading voice for the national parks, those numbers are even larger.

A report released a month ago by NPCA , Restore a Nation: The Economic Benefits of Restoring the Lands and Waters of our National Parks, notes the need for new investments to maintain healthy ecosystems and address changing climate is important because the parks directly support $13.3 billion in private sector activity and maintain 267,000 jobs.

"By funding restoration projects in national parks, such as replanting native grasslands and rejuvenating streams and rivers; we as a nation can restore our national park system and create more American jobs," says Mark Wenzler, NPCA director for clean air and climate programs.

But success can be problematic.

When 11 Greenpeace activists climbed to the top of Mount Rushmore National Memorial on July 8, 2009 and unfurled a banner near the chiseled face of President Lincoln urging the Obama administration to confront global warming, they inadvertently brought attention to not just that environmental issue, but homeland security as well.

Despite years of concerns that terrorists might strike within the National Parks, the National Park Service's approach to security is haphazard, inefficient, and ineffective, according to an August 2009 Government Accountability Office report.

"Critical to advancing the Park Service's security efforts, a more comprehensive risk management approach and related guidance - which are currently lacking - would provide management with up-to-date information on threats and trends in security gaps and would allow management to target resources to address the greatest threats and vulnerabilities," notes the report.

Back in May 2005, the agency's unfunded homeland security costs had surpassed $40 million a year. According to GAO, the Park Service staff did not have to meet any qualifications, demonstrate expertise, or undergo any specialized training, and oversight of their security activities.

Security along the U.S.-Mexico border, such as Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona, is a case in point: it has become a favorite crossing for drug runners and illegal aliens sneaking into the country. On April 14th, U.S. Reps. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), Doc Hastings (R-Washington), Peter King (R-New York), and Lamar Smith (R-Texas), introduced legislation that essentially blocks the NPS from enforcing the Wilderness Act or the Endangered Species Act along the border if those laws interfered with the Border Patrol. Bishop, the ranking Republican on a subcommittee that oversees national parks and public lands, wants to stop the Department of Interior (which oversees the NPS) from denying the U.S. Border Patrol (Homeland Security) access to wilderness and other protected federal lands along the Mexico-U.S. border.

"This legislation helps ensure that DOI policies no longer enable dangerous criminals to co-opt federal border lands as their drug trafficking highways," said Rep. Bishop. "What many fail to recognize is that allowing the (U.S. Border Patrol) to apprehend and deter trains of criminal traffickers will not only remedy weaknesses in border security, but also improve the health and vitality of our protected federal lands, which have been severely damaged by years of abuse from drug and human traffickers. National Security and a healthy environment are not mutually exclusive, however with current DOI policies, neither is being accomplished."

And then there's climate change

A report released in August 2009 by the NPCA detailed concerns related to climate change in the parks. The group called on the National Park Service to come up with a detailed plan and funding to adapt to temperature-related ecosystem changes.

"Right now, no national plan exists to manage wildlife throughout their habitat, which often is a patchwork of lands managed by multiple federal agencies, states, tribes, municipalities and private landholders," wrote Thomas C. Kiernan, president of the conservation group.

The survey by the conservation group reinforced testimony by President Obama's nominee for park service director, Jon Jarvis.

"Climate change challenges the very foundation of the national park system and our ability to leave America's natural and cultural heritage unimpaired for future generations," Jarvis told a House subcommittee.

He noted that "national park units can serve as the proverbial canary in the coal mine, a place where we can monitor and document ecosystem change without many of the stressors that are found on other public lands."

Earlier in April 2009, Thomas Swetnam, director of the University of Arizona's Laboratory for Tree-Ring Research, told members of the U.S. House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands that climate change is creating a series of challenges for those who manage the national park system's "crown jewels."

"The rationale for the parks was, and is, that these are the places we care the most about in terms of protecting and preserving these wonders, now and in the future," he said.

One example of climate change impact Swetnam told the congressional panel is a 2006 study published in the journal Science of forest fire activity on federal lands by Swetnam and two colleagues in California. During a 34-year stretch between 1970 and 1986 there was a seven-fold increase in the amount of acreage burned during the second half of the study over the first half. Swetnam said that correlated with rising spring and summer temperatures in the region, with the largest fires coming on the heels of earlier spring temperatures.

"From locations of the large fires in different elevations and forest types, and patterns of spatial and temporal moisture deficits, it was apparent that warming climate was the key driver overall," he said. This was especially true in some regions like the Northern Rocky Mountains.

The FY 2011 budget for the National Park Service continues support of the Climate Change Adaptation Initiative at the FY 2010 level. The National Park Service received $10 million in FY 2010 to assess parks' vulnerability to climate change, develop adaptation and mitigation strategies to reduce impacts, and continue monitoring resources in collaboration with other Interior bureaus and partners.

The National Park Service and the Environmental Protection Agency also started the Climate Friendly Parks network program last summer to help parks address climate change and knock down their carbon footprint. Parks must measure their amounts of emissions, come up with plans to curb them, and educate the public on what they can do to help. National parks, like other federal agencies, have already been under orders to reduce energy and gasoline use. But the Obama administration has pushed greening parts of government further, including replacing government fleets with more fuel-efficient cars and trucks. Parks are turning down thermostats and sealing windows, providing loaner bikes to employees and installing food composting and recycling bins.

Clearing the Air

In February a collection of environmental organizations, led by the National Parks Conservation Association, petitioned the federal government to declare New Mexico's Four Corners coal-burning power plant to be in violation of the Clean Air Act and thereby should be forced to be cleaned up. The Four Corners area - where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah meet - currently hosts several of the most polluting fossil-fuel plants in the nation. The focus of the request was based on the fact that the Four Corners plant is less than 200 miles from 16 national parks and wilderness areas, including Mesa Verde, the Grand Canyon, the San Juan National Forest, Utah's Canyonlands and Bryce Canyon, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, and the Weminuche Wilderness. The National Park Service has acknowledged the Four Corners plant has the most effect on national park visibility of any coal-fired plant in the country - cutting visibility by 25 times the level the EPA defines as "impairment."

Those concerned about the "quality-of-life" within the National Parks in the West say the push to clean-up this threat is timely because more coal plants may be on the way. Texas-based Sithe Global Power and the Navajo Nation Dine Power Authority have proposed a $2.5 billion coal-fired power plant in the same area that would be among the largest ever built in the United States.

Supporters of our national parks are actually encouraged by the law that was signed in February to allow firearms in the national parks. At a celebration this past weekend at Saguaro National park in Arizona, a supporter wearing a "Support You Right to Arm Bears" T-shirt said: "It's great, let's hope 'Yogi' and 'Smokey' are packing heavy."