Panel: U.S. should spend $700M more on its parks

Spending on national parks should be increased by at least $700 million over the next seven years, an independent panel urged Congress on Thursday.

“You could double that and still not have enough,” said Jack Neckels, a former superintendent of Grand Teton National Park and a member of the board of the Colorado National Monument Association.

Additional spending should bring increased tourism, promote enjoyment of the outdoors and help preserve national treasures for future generations, the bipartisan National Parks Second Century Commission said.

The commission also urged President Obama to appoint a panel charged with promoting the parks and raising private money in time for the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in 2016. It also called for an expansion of the National Park Service’s mission, making education an explicit part of the agency for the first time.

Needs at the national parks tend to be basic, but extensive because of their size and the harsh environments of places such as the national parks of the western United States.

“If I could keep the roads and trails and restrooms in good shape,” Neckels said, “I’d be a happy camper.”

Spending on the national parks amounts to investing in them, he said, because it encourages more visitation and rewards local people with jobs, as was with the case of hiring Grand Valley people for trail work on Colorado National Monument with stimulus funding.

All the parks “consume a lot of money to keep in fair shape for visitor use,” Neckels said.

The Second Century panel, chaired by former Sens. Howard Baker of Tennessee and J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana, presented the 52-page report to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

“America stands at a crossroads: Down one road lie missed opportunities and irretrievable loss of our natural and cultural legacy. Down the other is a future in which national parks — protected forever and for all — help forge a better world,” the commission said.

Salazar said a spending request by Obama for the next fiscal year would increase park spending by $100 million, exactly the amount the group recommended.

Salazar called preserving and enhancing national parks a solemn obligation, and said he and Obama are committed to honoring that pledge.

“These are beautiful places and historic sites that have been passed on to us by past generations, and now we have a responsibility to pass on these treasures to our children and grandchildren,” Salazar said.

Baker, a Republican, and Johnston, a Democrat, worked on the report for 13 months. The commission was made up of 26 national leaders and experts, including scientists, historians, conservationists, academics, business leaders, policy experts and retired National Park Service executives. The panel held five public hearings at national parks across the country.

“The national parks truly are America’s best idea, and these recommendations will make the national parks even more central to the lives of all Americans,” Johnston said.

Baker called park expansion “an issue whose time has come,” adding that for the first time, he senses the American public “has come to understand the importance of the park system in a broad-based way.”

Baker and other speakers were confident the report would benefit from a coincidence of timing:

PBS is set to air a six-part documentary series on national parks directed by Ken Burns beginning Sunday.

The series, called “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” is scheduled to run through Oct. 2 on most PBS stations.


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