Noted historian Wallace Stegner called it “the best idea we ever had.” A century after the establishment of the National Park Service in 1916, few could disagree with his sentiment. America’s national parks continue to fuel the world’s imagination and define our country’s character.
Fast forward 100 years, and Congress has abandoned this commitment to our nation’s heritage. Years of underfunding has undercut the NPS’s ability to maintain its incredible portfolio of natural and cultural assets, and this neglect has ballooned the backlog of maintenance to a staggering $11.9 billion.
On its centennial anniversary, we must renew our forbearers’ undertaking and press Congress to recommit to the National Park System.
I can’t imagine the Bay Area without the incredible natural and historical assets that the NPS manages and maintains. The Golden Gate National Recreation Area alone spans 80,002 acres, from San Francisco to northern Marin County, and includes such landmarks as Alcatraz, the Marin Headlands, the remarkable old growth redwood forests of the Muir Woods National Monument and The Presidio.
Add the biodiversity and expansive sandy beaches of the Point Reyes National Seashore; San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park, which immerses visitors in The City’s history as a hub for international trade and cultural exchange; and the many epic national parks just a half day’s drive away, including Yosemite, and it becomes crystal clear that the Bay Area owes a debt of gratitude to the NPS’s commitment to preserving the amazing natural and cultural riches in our backyard.
The NPS plays a critical and undervalued role in maintaining sites that are not only central to our history, identity and quality of life, but that also drive billions of dollars to our communities by attracting visitors from around the world: California’s 27 national parks, 36 natural landmarks, 144 historic landmarks, monuments and historic places generate more than $1.6 billion in tourism dollars each year.
The Bay Area’s national parks require hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure repairs, including $278 million at GGNRA alone, and the alarming backlog in our region is accelerating due to an increasing number of visitors — more than 15 million annually at GGNRA — and our temperate climate that allows for year-round access. A few hours’ drive from us, Yosemite National Park, where iconic California sequoias took root thousands of years ago and where my deep love of the outdoors was born a few short decades ago, needs more than half a billion dollars in repairs, including $100 million of which is considered critical for visitor safety and access.
This growing backlog has consequences: It leads to the neglect of trails, roads, sewage and water systems, monuments and historic buildings; it directly affects visitor access and safety; and it endangers the preservation of the historical and natural places that form such an integral part of our identity as San Franciscans, Californians, and Americans. The NPS facilities and maintenance teams work tirelessly to make sure the parks are safe and accessible, but it’s an endless game of whack-a-mole as years of degradation and inadequate funding have left them without the resources or the manpower to keep up.
Please join me in calling on Congress to celebrate the centennial in the only way that makes sense: Doing right to future generations by addressing the infrastructure repair backlog and putting the parks on sound financial footing for the long term. And if Congress plays it right, the federal government doesn’t have to do it alone. They should learn from successful local partnerships like the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy and create a federal parks investment fund that provides guaranteed funding for maintenance and leverages matching dollars from private sources.
Establishing our National Park System was indeed one of America’s very best ideas, and ensuring the long-term protection and maintenance of our most precious national treasures for another hundred years can’t rank far behind.
Gavin Newsom is Lieutenant Governor of California.