An Uncertain Future For Our National Parks? Not On Our Watch

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Today, the nation will celebrate one of our country's crowning achievements, the centennial of the National Park Service, and a model of conservation and preservation now used all over the world.

For myself and some of my colleagues, that celebration will take place at the Roosevelt Arch at the North Gate of Yellowstone National Park, our nation's first national park. Inscribed across the arch that greets visitors to Yellowstone is a quote from the law that created the park, stating the purpose of protecting this remarkable landscape was "For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People."

Those words are the guiding principle of our National Park Service's mission, to protect the natural, historical and cultural sites that together help tell the American story. But even as record-breaking crowds visit American icons like Yosemite, the Great Smokies, and Gettysburg, our parks and the agency entrusted with their care have never been more challenged.

Many of these challenges may not occur to the average visitor who see these places as pinnacles of natural grandeur and windows into our past.

When visitors walk the wooded trails of Shenandoah or the stone steps of the Lincoln Memorial, they may not notice that there are far fewer rangers than in years past, meaning fewer rangers to protect wildlife, maintain our trails, and teach us about our history.

When visitors climb the peaks of Rocky Mountain or walk the Freedom Trail in Boston, they may not realize that shuttered building or closed trail is actually just one part of our park system's $12 billion repair backlog, a backlog that the Congress normally gives just half of the money the Park Service needs to keep that number growing every year.

When visitors step into our nation's beginnings at Jamestown or take in the majestic mountains of the Grand Tetons, they don't realize that destructive development may soon occur just outside those parks' borders that, if allowed to move forward, would forever mar these treasured places.

And when visitors are quick to snap a picture of a distant Grizzly bear in Glacier or dive into the sparkling blue waters of Biscayne, they may not think of the repeated attempts by many in Congress to weaken or remove the protections our parks' wildlife, water, and other resources depend on.

These are just some of the challenges our national parks face as they head into their second century, but it is also not the first time parks have faced these challenges. The difference is that when we have faced these challenges in the past, those across the political spectrum came together to overcome them.

When visitor centers and other park facilities were at the verge of collapse in the 1950s, we came together to pursue Mission 66, a 10-year infrastructure effort to modernize the visitor experience. When we saw the threats our country's air, water, and wildlife face both in and outside our parks, we passed protections such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. And for more than a century, presidents of both parties have used tools such as the Antiquities Act to protect important pieces of our shared heritage like the Grand Canyon and the Statue of Liberty.

Faced with the challenges before us today, the decisions we make now will have profound effects on our parks for decades to come. Now cannot be the time we decide to turn our backs on our parks. Not on our watch.

We need a renewed commitment as a country to our parks, a commitment that goes beyond a supportive tweet and a selfie. It must be a Congress that will preserve those protections our parks rely on and gets our Park Service the resources and funding it needs to tackle parks' challenges.

It must be a president who understands the vital role of parks in our society, and is committed to working with members of all parties to support our parks and ensure more pieces of the American story are added to our Park System.

And it must be members of the public who will not only continue visiting national parks, but the day after they visit commit to helping that park by volunteering, writing a letter to the editor, or calling their member of Congress demanding we do more for our parks.

Our parks face many challenges, but overcoming challenges is part of the American story, a story told through our national parks. In this, their centennial year, let's recommit to ensuring a brighter future for America's favorite places. They deserve no less.