Over the past 4 1/2 years, The Pew Charitable Trusts has collected and shared data about the numerous repairs needed throughout our country’s 100-year-old National Park System and worked with hundreds of local and regional organizations around the nation to share this information with policymakers. These case studies include national historic sites that have been closed to visitors because of structural and safety concerns, such as the Lockwood House in Harpers Ferry National Historical Park in West Virginia. Or Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, which has a decades-old sewage system that has been leaking above the cave for years, creating a potential risk of E. coli for both visitors and the unique wildlife that make their home in the cave’s waters. Or Yellowstone National Park’s deteriorating ranger housing, or the water-damaged walls at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, part of Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park. Across the parks system there are disintegrating roads, eroding trails, outdated campgrounds, archeological sites in need of stabilization, unsafe wastewater and electrical systems, and deteriorating battlefields, waterways, and docks. These deferred maintenance projects threaten visitor safety and access, the preservation of our nation’s historic and cultural assets, and the livelihood of local economies that depend on park tourism.
For years, a growing coalition of local, state, and national groups has been calling on Congress to dedicate resources to restore our parks and public lands. It includes: local businesses, towns, and cities across the nation, tribes, veterans groups, infrastructure and contracting firms, conservation organizations, preservation associations, the recreation industry, engineering and planning firms, hunters and anglers, faith groups, restaurant and lodging associations, state tourism and marketing groups, and local chambers of commerce. The breadth of support has had a ripple effect that has reached Congress.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers in both the Senate and the House of Representatives worked across the aisle to craft the Great American Outdoors Act, which recently passed both bodies with overwhelming support. With President Trump’s signature on August 4, this groundbreaking act is now law and will provide an investment of up to $6.65 billion in nontaxpayer funds over five years for priority park repairs and nearly $3 billion for our U.S. forests, Bureau of Land Management lands, fish and wildlife Service, and Bureau of Indian Education schools. The act also permanently and fully funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund, an important tool to protect access to public lands and that provides communities with resources to build local parks, trails, and soccer fields.
This law is a long-overdue investment in the maintenance of our parks and public lands, and it will also create jobs. The act will help sustain the 5.2 million American jobs the recreation industry supports each year—spending from park visitors alone supports over 340,000 jobs annually—and a recent National Park Service (NPS) analysis projects that it will generate an additional 100,000 park-related jobs.
This is the biggest investment in our national parks in nearly 65 years. In 1956, as part of Mission 66, Congress voted to provide nearly a billion dollars over 10 years to build visitor centers, update bathrooms, fix roadways, and repair other amenities to make parks safer and more welcoming for visitors, in response to an outcry from an American public disturbed by the condition of its parks. Much of that infrastructure has since deteriorated, yet today NPS accommodates more than 325 million visits each year.
Congress is to be commended for passing the Great American Outdoors Act and for recognizing the benefits of investing in our parks and public lands, just as visionary members of Congress did over half a century ago.
Marcia Argust directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ campaign to restore America’s parks.