By Katrina Marland

Mount Ranier National Park (Credit: Flickr/lawdawg1)

Have you ever been to Yellowstone? Gettysburg? How about the Grand Canyon? We know these places so well that we rarely even use their full names. It makes it easy to forget what they all have in common: they are part of the national park system. The National Park Service oversees 84 million acres of land, including parks, historic landmarks and more. It is responsible for places that contain a combination of culture, history and natural resources.

Despite the recession, national parks have seen more visitors in the last two years than they have over the past decade. Unfortunately, they were already underfunded (their budget — only 1/13th of one percent of the federal budget — was cut by $140 million this year), and the influx of visitors is taking a toll on these much-loved and much-traveled locations. The across-the-board cuts that could be enacted next year would remove an additional $200 million from the national parks budget.

Without the funds to properly staff or maintain the national parks, many sites could fall into disrepair, close down trails, programs, even entire sections of the park, with devastating consequences for the local economies based around these attractions.

Last week, the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) released a report titled “Made in America: Investing in National Parks for Our Heritage and Our Economy” to raise awareness of how vital these parks are to our nation and to local economies. It also details the effects that the budget cuts could have on the national park system and the locations it cares for. You can see the complete report on the NPCA website, but here are some highlights:

  • National parks support more than $13 billion worth of direct local private sector economic activity and nearly 270,000 private sector jobs.
  • The scenic Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and North Carolina, which has only 10 permanent rangers staffing its 14 visitor facilities, relies heavily on seasonal staffers. With a 10 percent budget cut, they would have to eliminate all seasonal staffers and some permanent positions and would be forced to close some of the parkway’s facilities.
  • Budget cuts would force the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to cut its two volunteer coordinator positions. In 2008 alone, those positions organized 2,400 volunteers to donate 124,000 hours of service to maintain the park’s 800-mile trail system.

There’s a lot at play here. The Congressional Super Committee has cuts to make, and everyone has different ideas of what is most important. The local economies are of course what is on everyone’s mind. That’s the logical thing to be thinking about. But I confess that I just can’t imagine not being able to visit these remarkable places. I have always found them to be places to reconnect, whether to our history, to nature or to friends and family on an outdoor adventure. I would hate to see us lose that at a time when everything else in the world seems to be getting even more chaotic.