National Parks' Broad Appeal Could Slip Without Needed Repairs

Unaddressed maintenance issues hamper experience for visitors from home and abroad

National Parks' Broad Appeal Could Slip Without Needed Repairs
Grand Canyon National Park
A tourist looks out from the South Rim at Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona.
Getty Images

Note: This article was updated with a new image and caption on April 23, 2019.

America's national parks draw millions of visitors a year from outside the U.S. “You hear, when you walk along the rim, all these different languages being spoken, which I absolutely love,” Mindy Riesenberg, director of marketing and communications for the Grand Canyon Conservancy, said on a recent episode of The Pew Charitable Trusts' podcast, “After the Fact.”

But many of those international tourists, like Americans who come to the parks, are encountering sites in need of repairs, including issues that are affecting safety, access, and educational and recreational opportunities. Overdue maintenance needs include deteriorating historic buildings, neglected visitor centers, potholed roads, and outdated water and sewage systems. This maintenance backlog has reached nearly $12 billion across the more than 400 National Park Service (NPS) sites, underlining the need for Congress to pass legislation to restore our parks.   

America's national parks are among the showcase attractions that draw people to the U.S. from near and far, and, in some instances, it's the first piece of the country that international visitors see. Bipartisan legislation has been introduced in the House and Senate that would provide $6.5 billion over five years to help NPS make priority repairs. This investment would ensure that our parks continue to represent the best of America to those visiting from other countries. 

About 35 percent of the estimated 80 million international travelers to the U.S. visited national parks in 2018, according to the U.S. Travel Association. Overall, NPS sites recorded more than 300 million visits in each of the past four years, and they have hosted 14.3 billion visits since 1904, when the government began keeping statistics. That volume of traffic and use, coupled with the fact that many national parks are at least 100 years old, highlights the challenge of addressing backlogged maintenance now, particularly with the Park Service's limited annual maintenance budget.  

Riesenberg, who grew up visiting Grand Canyon National Park, said the site receives 6.25 million visitors a year from all over the world. Among the park's maintenance issues are frequent leaks in the 16-mile pipe that serves as the sole source of drinking water for visitors to the canyon's South Rim.

More investment is needed to ensure that park resources are preserved, as well as accessible and welcoming to all, which in turn helps boost the economies of gateway communities. National park visitors spent more than $18 billion in local communities in 2017, supporting more than 306,000 jobs and resulting in more than $35 billion in national economic output.

Fixing the parks now can help protect that revenue and those jobs, and show domestic and international tourists alike that U.S. leaders see the long-term value in maintaining the country's park system at world-class standards.

Marcia Argust directs The Pew Charitable Trusts' campaign to restore America's parks.