Staring out the window of my boyfriend’s Suzuki, I try not to think about the problems ahead. It’s almost New Years Eve and we both should be excited right now, on our way to celebrate under the stars at Big Bend National Park. This annual tradition, and even this arduous road trip, is normally a happy affair. But today NPR news is droning on in the background, reminding us that our beloved park is in shambles.
Photo by Dave Hensley
I fear that this annual desert pilgrimage of ours isn’t meant to last, because it’s certainly not on track to. Our National Park System is drowning in a maintenance backlog mounting over $12 billion. Of that $12 billion, Big Bend faces $91 million in necessary repair and restoration.
I’ve always known that our parks needed help, but I’ve been shocked to learn the scope of suffering at Big Bend National Park. Like so many other parks, our facilities are deteriorating. Campgrounds, visitor centers, staff housing, roads, and plumbing are old to say the least. Not only that, within the park is preserved thousands of years of both human and natural history that must be protected. On a daily basis, our Park Service fights noise, air and water pollution, visitor overcrowding, nonnative species, vandalism, traffic, and the ravages of time. I can’t help but notice how exhausted our rangers seem, even on a brisk December morning.
This story is familiar across the nation. Our parks can’t afford to fix the big problems that are growing in cost every day. The National Park Services receives only 60 cents for every dollar needed just keep its maintenance backlog from growing. And though tourism in Big Bend supports more than 500 Texas jobs and the need for more personnel is growing, our current administration plans to cut NPS full-time employment by almost 1,300 individuals. Why are we abandoning our most sacred spaces in their greatest time of need?
Growing up in Texas, Big Bend National Park served as my second home, a place where I went to explore, reset myself, and put into perspective all the challenges of growing up. I couldn’t imagine putting a dollar sign on solace like this, but unfortunately our Congress has. Less than 1/14th of 1 percent of our entire federal budget goes towards the National Park Service. What’s more, President Trump’s 2018 proposed budget cuts nearly $300 million more in park funding. He donated his first quarter-salary as president, $78,333.32, to the National Park Service, but we all knew that a glass of water wasn’t going to put out a raging fire.
Though things seem bleak for our parks, it’s not too late to turn things around. Enthusiasm and public support for our public lands is stronger than ever and isn’t going anywhere. Economically speaking, the National Park Service has more than earned its keep. In 2016 alone, nation-wide park visitation contributed $18.4 billion to park gateway regions across the United States. Visitation is at record-breaking levels; over 330 million people visited our parks last year alone. For the love of parks, this isn’t a political issue, and we cannot make it one.
In the words of environmentalist Terry Tempest Williams, as Americans “we are all land rich.” I fear that, unless we do something now, this will no longer be the case; that my children and grandchildren won’t be able to experience the things that shaped me into the person I am today. That they will never wake to the morning warbler’s song, never dive into a desert hot spring after a long day’s hike, never find out why the stars shine so bright in the heart of Texas.
Our national parks, in more ways than one, have taught me about the world — the past and the present. But we are the ones creating a future. Congress must provide the necessary funding to our National Park Service to relieve this backlog. Today, though I try not to not think about the problems ahead, I rightfully fail — I can’t ignore this any longer. Our greatest resources are slipping out from under us. We must save these sacred places of solace, learning, experience, and recreation and we must do it now.