Preparing for the Centennial
Federal Lands Sub-Committee
House Natural Resources Committee
December 2, 2015
Today, the Federal Lands Sub-Committee meets to hear testimony on a discussion draft of the National Park Service Centennial Act.
Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. This year-long celebration of our National Parks affords us a unique opportunity to reflect on the past, assess the present, and make adjustments for the future.
The centennial pays tribute to the uniquely American notion that our most beautiful and historic lands should be set aside for the use and enjoyment of the people of the United States. In the words of the Organic Act of 1916, “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same.”
Yet, as we approach the centennial, the Park Service faces considerable challenges to achieving the goals sets forth in the Organic Act, chief among them being the massive 11.5 billion dollar deferred maintenance backlog. As the Park Service has gradually taken on new responsibilities and Congress has voted to add new units to the system, the Park Service has fallen behind on necessary projects. With 409 units now included in the system, the Park Service is spread thin.
In addition to deferred maintenance projects, the Park Service also faces challenges with fee collection, technological upgrades, management of concessions contracts for visitor services, and most disturbingly, a decrease in park visitation. We have been told that visitation is at an all-time high, but this is an illusion created by new memorials in Washington D.C. Per capita visitation to our Parks has steadily declined since the peaks of the late 80’s and early 90’s and overnight stays are down in absolute numbers.
In fact, from all-time highs, in-park concessioner lodging is down by 722,000 persons annually, or about 17 percent. Tent campers are down by 1.37 million overnights, about 26 percent. The decline in visitation has been particularly high among young people. Recent reports indicate that visits to parks by those 15 and younger fell by 50% in the last decade. Perhaps most telling, RV camper overnight stays are down by 2.6 million camper nights – about 56 percent, despite the fact that RV ownership and RV stays at private campgrounds has grown dramatically.
This sub-committee is especially concerned over policies that are actively removing traditional tourist amenities from our national parks.
Two years ago, the National Park Service proposed removing long-standing tourist facilities from Yosemite Valley, including bicycle and raft rentals, snack facilities, gift shops, horseback riding rentals, the iconic ice-skating rink at Curry Village, the art center, the grocery store, swimming pools, and even the valley’s landmark and historic stone bridges. Their current plan locks in a 30 percent reduction in campsites and lodging compared to historic highs, including loss of prime sites close to the river. Funds appropriated by Congress to restore campsite levels after the 1997 flood were not spent as Congress instructed.
And what we’re learning is, tourists don’t go where they’re not welcomed.
I can’t think of a better way to approach the next century of our National Park Service than to restore the vision of its founders. Our national parks should be open to the public for all recreational pursuits —hiking, biking, fishing, snow-mobiling, horseback riding, skiing, rafting, skating, RVing, camping, staying in an historic lodge – these are the priceless memories our parks are there to create for succeeding generations of Americans.
The discussion draft before the sub-committee today helps the Park Service to prepare for its nation-wide celebration in 2016, as well as better equips the Service for the next century of promoting and protecting our parks. Provisions in the bill help reduce the Service’s deferred maintenance backlog by creating new sources of revenue to pay for needed improvements. Other provisions will help the Service expand its Volunteers in Parks and Public Lands Corps programs as well as making needed changes to the National Park Foundation Board of Directors.
Our witnesses today have come to share their views on how to best prepare the Park Service for its centennial and how we can improve park management and visitation. I thank each of them for their willingness to testify before this sub-committee today and for their dedication to ensuring that our National Parks are on a path toward greater sustainability.