National Park Service (NPS) staff members dedicate their careers to protecting and stewarding the more than 400 NPS sites across the country. They include the rangers greeting visitors at the entrance stations, the biologists and historians preserving American heritage, the interpreters bringing the stories of our nation to life, and the park managers overseeing programs and operations. These employees help ensure the parks are run safely and efficiently but, unfortunately, many live in on-site housing that is in dire—and overdue—need of repair.
Across the country, many park employees live in housing provided through NPS’ Employee Housing Program. This program is vital, especially in parks that have limited housing stock, rely on seasonal employees, or are in remote areas. Additionally, staff with time-sensitive responsibilities, such as law enforcement, fire, and search and rescue, are often required to live within parks so that they can quickly respond to emergencies.
Years of unreliable congressional funding have left NPS budgets pinched and park managers without the proper funds to keep up with maintenance needs. With limited funds, managers often must make tough choices. As a result, other park repairs are often prioritized over employee housing.
According to NPS, deferred maintenance for employee housing totaled more than $186 million in fiscal year 2018. Compare that with the $2.2 million NPS received that year for its Housing Improvement Program. With such inadequate yearly funding, it’s no surprise the problem continues to grow.
Repair needs include leaky roofs, outdated plumbing and electrical systems, moldy, rodent-infested interiors, and deteriorating historic structures. Not addressing these problems can present serious health and safety threats to staff and their families.
On a recent trip to Yellowstone National Park I saw run-down trailers, some nearly 50 years old, where some staff are housed. And at Rocky Mountain National Park, the superintendent said that some employee housing was in such bad shape that it had to be shuttered.
Park housing repairs are funded by congressional appropriations and supplemented by employee rental income, which isn’t enough to meet the need. NPS charges rent based on the condition of a unit, so the worse shape a building is in, the less money the agency collects for repairs. And if a home’s interior deteriorates too far, policy prevents NPS from renting the unit at all.
This can exacerbate the widespread shortages of employee housing in and around parks—a serious problem for the many sites with limited or expensive rental options in surrounding communities, such as Acadia National Park in Maine, Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, and Golden Gate National Recreation Area in California.
Faced with these challenges, some parks have started to think creatively about how to meet their needs. Rocky Mountain National Park recently partnered with the RV Industry Association, Forest River, and the Rocky Mountain Conservancy to install “Park Model” housing units and bunkhouses for park staff. To address a shortage in Zion National Park, NPS teamed with the nonprofit group Zion Forever, American Express, and the National Park Foundation to restore historic homes and construct new trailers. And in Wyoming, the Grand Teton National Park Foundation is pitching in by purchasing an inholding—privately held land within the park—and converting the property to a site for seasonal housing before donating it to the park.
While these partnerships can improve and increase park housing, they aren’t enough to alleviate the more than $186 million housing repair backlog. This figure is just a small component of the nearly $12 billion in deferred maintenance across NPS sites, but it is extremely important that Congress provide adequate funding to fix park housing. These employees dedicate their careers to upholding the highest standards at America’s national parks—they deserve a safe and secure place to rest their heads at night.
Marcia Argust directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ campaign to restore America’s parks.