$11.9 billion is the cost of the NPS deferred maintenance. This is because funds keep getting cut, and not a lot of measures have been taken by the government to continue to preserve “America’s Best Idea” - a name given by many to our national parks. Our leaders simply don't seem to understand how severe the consequences are of underfunding national parks. Because national parks aren’t getting enough funds from the government, NPS staff’s wages have to be lowered and maintenance continually gets pushed back, which will ultimately cause entire parks to go out of order.
A lot of the money that is supposed to be allocated to national parks is not being given to them. A SmartAsset article written by Amelia Josephson states that the NPS needed $11.5B for proper park maintenance in 2014, but the government only appropriated $3B: a little over just 25% of what the parks needed. In addition, a bill passed in 1965, called the Land and Water Conservation Fund, is supposed to provide national parks with at least $900M each year, but a lot of that money is used for other things before it even reaches the NPS. Because of this, Josephson says, “from year to year, funding is unpredictable.” As the modern economy grows and humans begin to revolve around technology, many forget about nature and its wonders. Money is used for other things, and national parks are often put at the bottom of the priority list in many different categories, especially funding. A lot of the money that is supposed to be appropriated for national parks is not being provided at all, and the health and condition of national parks is rapidly deteriorating. This significance of this underfunding is that it forces NPS staff wages to be lowered, in addition to causing urgent maintenance to be continually pushed back.
Park staff are underpaid because the NPS simply can’t provide for them, and this lowering of wages will cause significant safety breaches. On Glassdoor, the stats the website has compiled shows that the average annual pay of a park ranger is only $46K, and that the average annual base pay is just $43,412. Assuming that park rangers work 365 days a year and 40 hours a week (the latter assumption is based on information from iresearchnet.com), their hourly base pay would only amount to around $20.81, and their average hourly pay would only total to $22.05. Of course, this assumption is flawed because park rangers most likely don’t work 365 days a year, but they often have to work extra hours, so these assumptions balance each other out. Obviously, the NPS doesn’t only consist of park rangers. There are also maintenance workers, laborers, forestry technicians, heavy equipment operators, etc. However, retaining the assumptions above, the highest salary listed for the NPS on Glassdoor is just a little over $30. These salaries can be compared to the salary of an average American citizen: $27/hr. It is quite shocking to think that, in terms of income, rangers are actually below average, even though they work tirelessly to preserve some of nature’s best. Wages this low will definitely not attract new rangers, and it might even cause current rangers to leave their position. Since rangers are the main enforcers of law at national parks, without them, many safety rules may not be enforced.
Because of this, the safety of tourists is being compromised. During one accident in Joshua Tree National Park, because rangers were not present, volunteer workers, who undoubtedly did not know as much as an experienced rangers, were told to handle the situation. This inexperience greatly increased the chances of death; luckily, during this particular incident, that did not happen. However, it did show how important rangers are to the health, safety and continuation of a park. In addition, with no one to enforce the rules, vandalism is becoming more and more common, from teens toppling natural monuments to people doing their business on park grounds. However, a lack of rangers is only one factor of safety breaches of national parks - insufficient preservation of key park sites and places that have the potential to be dangerous is also playing a role in slowly dismantling our national parks.
The National Park Service has a lot of maintenance to perform, but due to underfunding, they are unable to do so. At national parks, the expense of backlog maintenance overwhelms the amount of money that the government actually provides. According to the Joshua Tree National Park’s superintendent, David Smith, “Here at Joshua Tree, we have about $60 million in backlog maintenance. And to put that in perspective, our annual operating budget at this park is a little over $6 million.” The supposed maintenance would be performed on historic sites in the park, most notably Key Ranch and roads surrounding and passing through the park; because Joshua Tree is located on a fault, road damage is inevitable. The bottom line, says Smith, is that “[the park] doesn’t have enough money to provide the level of service the public expects.” While many parks aren’t quite as underfunded as Joshua Tree, nearly every national park needs more than what they actually get.
However, Joshua Tree is not the only national park that’s underfunded. According to NPR author Nathan Rott, Yosemite needs $500 million for repairs ($100 million for critical ones), and Grand Canyon needs at least $330 million for water system upgrades. Combined with the need of other parks, this cost totals to around $11.9 billion. Given these statistics, it seems like the government is investing in everything but national parks. According to the author, most parks need at least two times the money the government provides for proper maintenance. In the case of Joshua Tree, this scale is exaggerated; the park needs 10 times of what they actually receive for backlog maintenance. While the NPS director Jon Jarvis is hopeful that the government will eventually provide, neither Trump or Biden have shown that they might do so, compromising the continuation and health of these natural wonders. As of now, the question of whether the NPS’ backlog maintenance will eventually be completed or not still hangs in the air, and combined with the fact that less and less rangers are patrolling national parks, the effects of underfunding have finally taken their toll on our national parks.
What is happening to America’s Best Idea because of insufficient funds is truly horrific. Overcrowding, invasive species brought in by tourists, and vandalism are all being caused by the fact that national parks aren’t getting enough money - there are not enough rangers around to reinforce the rules, and improper maintenance increases the risk of damage to the park and injuries of tourists. At Everglades National Park, pythons were let loose and started destroying the park’s delicate ecosystem, and the same will undoubtedly take place at other national parks too if the absence of rangers goes unnoticed. And invasive species aren’t the only problem: natural structures that have been around for millennia are being subjected to vandalism and subsequently destroyed in a matter of months, and even days. In addition, urgent maintenance which cannot be performed because of underfunding will cause major problems in the future, including destruction of invaluable monuments and increasingly common deaths. If current trends continue, sites like Key Ranch at Joshua Tree, Half Dome at Yosemite, and Ol’ Faithful at Yellowstone, might not be around for long - and these monuments are only some of the victims of the underfunding of national parks. Unfortunately, even with the dire circumstances parks are facing right now, it doesn’t seem their situation will get any better. President Trump wanted to cut the NPS’ budget by $481M (luckily, Congress didn’t approve) and is considering making parts of parks private and available to buy and sell. If we can’t make the government see sense - especially Congress and Trump - it might soon be too late to save America’s Best Idea.
“National Park Service Salaries.” Glassdoor, www.glassdoor.com/Salary/National-Park-Service-Salaries-E41328.htm.
Josephson, Amelia. “The Economics of National Parks.” SmartAsset, SmartAsset, 6 June 2018, smartasset.com/taxes/the-economics-of-national-parks.
“What Is Deferred Maintenance?” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, www.nps.gov/subjects/infrastructure/deferred-maintenance.htm.
Rott, Nathan. “National Parks Have A Long To-Do List But Can't Cover The Repair Costs.” NPR, NPR, 8 Mar. 2016, www.npr.org/2016/03/08/466461595/national-parks-have-a-long-to-do-list-but-cant-cover-the-repair-costs.
Nice research! Thank you for supporting National Parks!