It is said that nature is neither kind nor cruel, just indifferent. But based on the annual banquet of colorful leaves and berries on display this month in national parks around the country, it sure looks as if Mother Nature likes to show off sometimes too. Her timing, incidentally, is sublime, with huge numbers of Americans heading outdoors in search of some sense of normalcy in a year upended by the COVID-19 pandemic.
And to help ensure that America’s parks and public lands continue to be accessible, safe, and enjoyable, Congress also did its part this year. During the summer, lawmakers passed the Great American Outdoors Act to invest a portion of energy development royalties in long-overdue repairs at our national parks—up to $6.65 billion over five years. Soon, the Department of the Interior will identify National Park Service sites slated to receive the first round of those funds during fiscal year 2021.
Here are four national parks that are big hits in the fall and have significant maintenance needs.
Shenandoah National Park, which draws high numbers of visitors from the nearby Washington area, is exceedingly popular in autumn. Along the century-old 100-mile route and the dozens of surrounding hiking trails, plants ranging from the Virginia creeper vine to oaks, maples, and other towering trees paint the landscape with vibrant autumnal hues.
Shenandoah’s 2019 list of deferred maintenance totals $71 million. More than $39 million of that is needed to cover repairs along Skyline Drive and other roads, but the total also includes work on water systems, buildings, and the park’s communications system.
When fall hits its stride in Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley National Park, brilliant reds, yellows, and oranges set a scene that, combined with the park’s covered bridges and waterfalls, invokes images of a rustic storybook setting. Visitors take it all in along nearly 150 miles of hiking and biking trails, or aboard the scenic railroad that winds through the park.
Those trails and rails make up a significant portion of Cuyahoga’s repair list, which totals $56 million.
During the fall season, the aspen, oak, maple, and dogwood trees of Yosemite add a seasonal flourish among the park’s giant sequoias, other evergreens, and towering rock formations. The show usually starts in October and can continue through November. With so much to see, it’s no surprise that Yosemite attracted more than 4.5 million visitors in 2019.
This popularity has taken a toll on the park’s infrastructure, to the tune of $643 million in deferred maintenance. The repair list includes roads, buildings, and wastewater and water systems.
Famous for its snow-covered namesake 14,411-foot peak, Mount Rainer National Park in Washington spans more than 12,800 vertical feet, offering visitors months to experience autumnal colors. The higher spots typically hit their colorful stride in late September or early October, while the valleys often shine for weeks beyond that period. Tipsoo Lake and Paradise Meadows, both about a quarter of the way up the mountain, are popular spots to watch the fall colors compete for attention.
Unfortunately, many visitors in recent years have also noticed the park’s mounting repair needs, which total more than $208 million. Road maintenance is the biggest issue, with faulty wastewater systems and eroding trails adding to the costs.
Nature may indeed be indifferent and fall’s colorful choreography is of course fleeting, but fortunately Congress acted this year to ensure lasting improvements to America’s treasured national parks. It will take more than a season for the Great American Outdoors Act to show its full effect, but, as with a dazzling fall scene, we’re hopeful the result will be worth the wait.
Marcia Argust directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ campaign to restore America’s parks.