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Explore our latest coverage of environmental issues, climate change and more.

Our National Parks: Turning Admiration Into Action

Tim Rains
National park boundaries that don’t comport with ecological realities make it challenging to protect animals that range outside the parks. It's just one of the challenges facing the National Park Service.";

The National Park Service finds itself in a seemingly paradoxical circumstance: widely admired, but increasingly uneasy about its ability to carry out its mission.

Poll after poll rates the agency among the very best in government. In a recent national Gallup poll, for example, respondents rated “national parks and open space” in second place among a list of 19 federal government functions. Sentiment toward the national parks may have been most powerfully expressed by the widespread public outrage over their closure during the most recent government shutdown.

Given this admiration, it’s ironic that the agency would be in the midst of a crisis in morale. But in a 2015 survey of satisfaction and related issues among federal employees, the National Park Service received an index score of 53 out of 100, placing it 259 out of 320 agencies. That’s approaching the lower twentieth percentile. And the score has fallen nearly ten points over the last decade. Employees believe deeply in their mission and have prepared themselves to carry out their work, but they lack the resources to do their job.

The permanent workforce of the National Park Service has dropped below 20,000 or fewer than the number of employees at Disneyland. Its annual budget accounts for less than one-tenth of one percent of the federal budget and is falling substantially in real dollars.

Consequently, the national parks have accumulated more than $12 billion in deferred maintenance. Add in the increasingly urgent challenges facing the national parks – climate change that threatens the integrity of the parks, for instance. It’s no wonder the agency is worried about living up to its mission.

What can be done about all this? The chief solution, of course, is for Congress to invest more in the national parks.

But ordinary citizens can also help.

Celebrate the National Park Service centennial with a commitment to do something for the national parks: volunteer at a visitor center, monitor sea turtle nests, rebuild a storm-damaged trail, help organize historical archives, donate to a park friends group, and a myriad of other actions. Above all, become an informed national parks voter.

In partnership with public, private and non-profit groups, those of us who love the parks must do what we can to help the National Park Service accomplish the increasingly important and challenging work for which it was created a hundred years ago.

Robert Manning is the Steven Rubenstein Professor of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Vermont.
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