Tarnish on our national treasures


Anne Mitchell Whisnant
David E. Whisnant

Published in The News & Observer (Raleigh, NC)

March 30, 2007

CHAPEL HILL--'Let's close the National Parks," Bernard DeVoto wrote in Harper's in 1953. Detailing the decay of a park system in crisis as visitation skyrocketed but budgets lagged in the post-World War II years, DeVoto shocked Americans by suggesting that Yellowstone, Yosemite and Grand Canyon be shuttered until citizens in "a more enlightened future" would demand from Congress the funding that would "save from destruction the most majestic scenery in the United States."

We're part of that future, but we don't seem more enlightened. In America's most visited park unit, North Carolina and Virginia's own Blue Ridge Parkway, broken picnic tables, sagging rail fences, overgrown overlooks and neglected campsites multiply, while 58 of 237 staff positions lie vacant (no chief of interpretation, no chief of maintenance, no public relations officer). Campgrounds operate on a shorter season, toilets are cleaned less often and $200 million in backlogged maintenance is deferred year after year. Last year, private supporters had to pay to print Parkway maps for summer travelers.

Trying to do more and more with less and less, the Parkway superintendent, like one that DeVoto profiled, is "a patient, frustrated, and sorely harassed man."

Two years after DeVoto's article appeared, Park Service Director Conrad Wirth proposed, and President Eisenhower and Congress endorsed, a 10-year infusion of funds in advance of the Park Service's 50th anniversary in 1966. The program, known as Mission 66, spent over $1 billion on new roads, trails, parking areas, campgrounds, water, sewer and power systems, historic structures and visitor centers in the parks.

But the solution was temporary, and the parks are in crisis again. With the Park Service's 100th birthday approaching in 2016, the Bush administration has announced a National Parks "Centennial Initiative," which has been widely touted as a 21st century Mission 66.

As scholars who study the parks' history and as citizens who applaud the impulse to address the crisis, we wish it were so. Sadly, though, beyond promising another 10-year spike in funding, the Centennial Initiative bears little resemblance to Mission 66.

The numbers tell part of the story. The Centennial Initiative proposes an additional $3 billion for the parks. It sounds impressive, but it would take $7.3 billion of today's dollars to equal Mission 66's $1 billion.

Moreover, there are more than twice as many parks as there were 50 years ago (181 then, 390 now), more than three times as many acres of parkland (24 million acres then, 80 million now) and more than four times as many visitors every year (62 million then, 273 million now). But President Bush promises nowhere near two to four times as much real money.

On a per visitor basis, the numbers look even worse. In 2006 dollars, Mission 66 provided $117 per visitor. If the Centennial Initiative were funded on a per-visitor basis at Mission 66 levels, it would be $32 billion instead of $3 billion.

More troubling are the philosophical differences between the programs. Mission 66 was grounded in the notion that the National Parks were national treasures, to be preserved and maintained by our government for all of us. Appropriately, its $1 billion came from the federal treasury.

But the Centennial Initiative was cooked up by an administration that named the notorious Gale Norton as its first secretary of the interior, gutted regulatory laws and budgets, wants to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, starved the Land and Water Conservation Fund and privatized everything it could.

Not surprisingly, the Centennial Initiative leans on the private sector for one-third of the promised funds: $1 billion in federal appropriations and a second billion to match $1 billion in private donations.

Even if the private funds can be raised (private park support groups currently contribute only $59 million annually), giving the administration another privatization wedge is a dubious proposition. No one knows what the quid pro quo will be. Private control of yet another area of public policy? Private interests, rather than public needs, dictating Centennial Initiative priorities? Routine park maintenance neglected in favor of glossier (and more fundable) specialty projects? Parks or park features named for corporations? The Google Grand Canyon, perhaps? Disney's Dinosaur National Monument? Harrah's Blue Ridge Parkway?

Far-fetched as these sound, an inescapable lesson of recent years is that things can (and will) get worse than we can possibly imagine in advance.

The national parks are our national legacy. Closing them until we come to our senses could indeed be better than selling them off bit by bit.

Public "listening sessions" on the Centennial Initiative began March 13 in the Great Smokies and continue through Monday. The public may also submit comments via regular mail or the National Park Service Web site through midnight Monday.

Our parks are crying for our help. Let's listen to them.


181: Number of national parks 50 years ago

390: Number of national parks today

24 million: Number of acres of national park land 50 years ago

80 million: Number of acres of national park land today

62 million: Number of national park visitors 50 years ago

273 million: Number of national park visitors today

Copyright 2007 by The News & Observer Pub. Co.