When dusk falls Thursday on Yellowstone National Park, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell is expected to kick off a commemoration of the 100th birthday of the national park system that will likely go well into the night.
Six thousand people will gather under the Roosevelt Arch at the park’s north entrance to hear federal officials and governors extol the virtues of what’s hailed as “America’s best idea,” a system started by former president Woodrow Wilson in 1916 that now includes more than 400 parks on 85 million acres in the 50 states and territories. But when the night is over, what will they awaken to at the start of the park system’s second century?
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These days the views at the parks aren’t all pretty. The system faces a $12 billion maintenance shortfall that’s left everything from bridges to restrooms in disrepair. Yellowstone’s backlog alone is $603 million with crumbling roads, buildings and wastewater systems. Congress has declined to provide funding needed for fixes that have lingered for more than a decade.
Another looming challenge lies in who comes to the parks. The average age of its visitors is as high as 63 years old at some sites, and the U.S. National Park Service is unsure how to entice younger people away from cities and the Internet.
Climate change is making matters worse. Rising temperatures and sea-level rise are grinding away at the Assateague Island National Seashore and decreasing snow and rain, stunting the growth of vegetation in several parks, including the Grand Canyon and the Mojave Desert, leaving bighorn sheep with little to eat.
At Glacier National Park in Montana, rising temperatures have caused the most accessible glacier in North America at Mount Grinnell to virtually disappear.
This year is projected to be a banner year for the park system, with attendance topping 330 million for the first time — a 23 million increase from last year. The top draws are Great Smoky Mountain National Park in the North Carolina and Tennessee with 10 million visitors in 2014, Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona with nearly 5 million visitors and Yosemite National Park in California with nearly 4 million, according to the park service. Last year, they spent more than $16 billion in cities and towns around the parks.
The most stalwart park visitors are disappearing, though, due to aging and death. The question of how to draw more young people and minorities who were historically alienated from parks is unsolved. Jewell wants to diversify their visitors and ensure that “the service is relevant to all Americans and engaging the next generation,” according to an announcement of Thursday’s events.
The splendor of the parks is tough to oversell. Visiting national parks, Americans sometimes find themselves face to face with bison and in shouting distance of bears. They walk across earth charred by lava flows and watch it flow down cliffs into the Pacific Ocean.
There are also pulsing geysers, eye-popping views from cliffs, canyons the size of big cities, and rich animal diversity. Many of the millions of people who visit the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial and Martin Luther King National Historic Site are unaware that they’re all maintained by the park service.
More visitors add to the numbers of people who encounter problems. “Restroom facilities have been closed, trails have not been maintained because there’s no money so visitors can’t take hikes,” said Theresa Pierno, president and chief executive of the National Parks Conservation Association. “Sometimes campgrounds and services are lacking,” all while more people are coming to parks. “It’s a very serious issue,” Pierno said.
Interior has appealed to Congress, and for years lawmakers have declined to increase the services appropriation above a standard of about $3 billion. Republican members instead called on the Government Accountability Office to investigate the park service to determine if it was collecting enough visitor fees and membership dues to address the problem on its own.
In a December report, the GAO concluded that Congress’ $3.1 billion appropriation over about a decade amounted to an 8 percent funding drop when adjusted for inflation. Lawmakers who called on the service to create a higher revenue stream overlooked one major obstacle: Congress. It virtually barred the agency from increasing rates and must pass a law to change that.
This figure represents the proportion of Park Service’s total funding that comes from fees, donations and other sources. This includes recreation fees, commercial service fees and philanthropic donations that the Park Service is authorized to collect.
But even if the service could increase rates, will there be enough visitors to pay them a few decades from now?
A significant group of park visitors are older than 65, and at that age, entrance is free. The bulk of paying visitors are between 50 and 60, paving the way for a revenue crash from fees in the next decade. The park service desperately needs new visitors as it moves into its new century.
That’s where Sangit Chari comes in. As the program manager for the Office of Relevancy, Diversity and Inclusion, her job is to increase the number of African-American, Latino, Native-American and Asian employees. The hope is that they, with the help of a five-year-old recruitment program for more diverse visitation, will become a beacon for minorities.
It’s been a hard slog, Chari said. “The issue we have with our minority employees is our turnover rates mirror our recruitment rates,” she said, meaning that they lose as many as they recruit. Traditionally, “it’s expected that to move up you move from park to park,” Chari said, and postings in remote locations may make minorities feel particularly isolated.
“We also have a challenge retaining millennials,” Chari said. “Unless we stem our retention issues, build a more inclusive environment, we will continue to remain stable.”
At Yosemite, John Jackson, a park ranger who’s black, said he goes out of his way to make members of underrepresented groups feel welcome when they show up at Yosemite.
“If you like reading a book, I tell them you can sit by the river. It could be a good place to take a nap,” he said. “I let them know the park is an open space for many different activities. But don’t try to do too much. If you have one day or one hour, just do one thing.”
Jackson visited Yosemite while living in Los Angeles in 1978 and fell in love. He worked there off and on for a few years before joining the staff permanently eight years ago. “If I see a horse, I want to ride it. If I see water, I want to swim. If I see snow shoes, I want to use them,” he said.
Not everyone shares his sense of adventure. “People come here and say I’m scared of bears how are they going to enjoy the place if they think there’s a bear around every corner?”
Fear, he said, can be overcome. But the park service as yet isn’t doing enough to lure people to its wide open spaces so they can defeat them. He said the service doesn’t do enough to tell the story of how people who weren’t white helped to build Yosemite and other parks - and landmarks where American Indian, black, Latino and Asian soldiers, workers and explorers haven’t been explored, let alone marked.
Yosemite dwells too much on the contributions of John Muir, whose love for the Sierra Nevada led to the creation of the park in 1890. “We keep talking about him,” Jackson said. “If we spent more time talking about American Indian contributions, maybe we would get them. If we talked about African Americans, maybe we would get more. The Chinese built roads here.
“We know John Muir. Multiple groups made this place famous historically, not just one group.”
All National Park Service sites that charge an entrance fee will be free to everyone on the following dates:
Aug. 25-28: National Park Service Birthday
Sept. 24: National Public Lands Day
Nov. 11: Veterans Day