(CN) — The National Park Service turned 100 on Thursday, but ongoing funding challenges have created a maintenance backlog that threatens to tarnish what famed documentarian Ken Burns calls “America’s best idea.”
The National Park Service currently oversees 409 sites, 60 “wild and scenic” rivers and 23 national trails — all of which combined to establish a record attendance last year with about 307 million total visitors.
Unlike other government agencies, the National Park Service also enjoys general public support. But despite the seeming bipartisan support, funding for the National Park Service has fluctuated in recent years: the Obama administration’s request for $860 million in funding for 2017 — the service’s centennial year — has yet to be approved by Congress.
The maintenance backlog is also piling up, with the total cost of necessary repairs and improvements a hair beneath $12 billion.
Many of the roads in Yellowstone National Park have not been upgraded since the 1930s and 1940s. It would cost between $800 million and $1.2 billion to make the necessary repairs.
The pipeline that brings water into Grand Canyon National Park needs replacing — it’s 20 years past its prime. The cost to replace it: $150 million. The park’s annual budget is $20 million.
In addition to infrastructure costs, day-to-day operations also require increased funding. NPR produced a segment earlier this year about how staff cuts at Great Smoky Mountains National Park have led to sanitation issues, as workers struggle to empty trashcans and keep toilets clean.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who oversees the park service, addressed the backlog in a speech earlier this year. She warned that budget crunches “have left our national parks and public lands understaffed and struggling to keep up with day-to-day operations.”
She noted that during World War II, the national parks fell into disrepair as government funds were diverted to the war effort. After the war, veterans looking for healing discovered crumbling infrastructure and huge crowds in what should have been America’s jewels.
But President Dwight Eisenhower and others began spending billions in 1956 to spruce up the parks in anticipation of the National Park Service’s 50th anniversary in 1966 — with the help of corporate sponsors, Jewell said.
The secretary said that 2016 brings additional challenges to our parks, including the by-products of climate change and a generation of young people that is “more diverse, more tech-savvy and more disconnected from nature than ever before.”
She touted the service’s “Find Your Park” campaign and Obama’s pushes to create more parkland and get kids to visit.
“This is about lifting up what’s working, and learning what we can do better when it comes to supporting our public lands,” she said.
Photo of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park: William Dotinga/CNS
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