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Saturday, August 6, 2016

To the President: Set the Parks on the Correct Path

With the completion of the major political parties presidential campaigns, the country now heads to the homestretch in its election of commander-in-chief. As such, its never to early to get National Parks on the incoming president's agenda. Below is an open letter to the next President of the United States.

To the President:

Congratulations on your recent victory and becoming America's 45th chief executive.  The next four or possibly eight years will likely be quite challenging.  Managing the economy, foreign and domestic affairs, energy matters, and many more matters will place great demands upon your time. However, I write today to make sure that National Parks stay on the radar during your administration.

To some, National Parks aren't on the same level of importance as other issues like the economy or energy production.  However, I believe National Parks are equally important as these is
sues. National Parks are more than pretty places or dusty old buildings, rather they are the physical manifestation of all American's value and hold sacred. 

Americans today inherited the National Parks from our ancestors who set aside their short-term desires and wants so that we could enjoy parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite.  We can never repay our ancestors for this gift, however we can pay it forward to the next generation. In other words, we can leave the National Parks and the National Park System in better shape than what we were given.

To do this, I recommend the following things:

1. Fund the Parks
The National Parks are an incredible bargain. Congress allocates a little more than $3 billion to run the park system. For that amount, which is about half of what the United States spends on a single nuclear aircraft carrier, the American public gets more than 400 sites that preserve and protect some of America's most sacred ideas, hopes and places. It's an incredible bargain.

What's more, research shows that every dollar the country spends on national parks, it returns $4 to the national economy.  That's a great return on investment. 

The past several administrations have rightly recognized the value and importance of national parks and reflected this in a growing national park allocation. I encourage you to continue this trend.
2. Establish New Parks
Over the past several years, the Obama Administration has used the Antiquities Act to create 10 new National Park System monuments including Castle Mountains, Waco Mammoth, and Fort Monroe.  I encourage you to continue this trend as well.  However, the trend the past several years has been to add historical monuments to the park system, while adding monuments dedicated to protecting the environment to other agencies such as the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. The Park Service has a stronger conservation mandate than these other agencies and placing them in under other agencies reduces natural resources protection. I'd encourage you to reverse this trend.
3. Define and Enforce Appropriate Recreation
The National Park Service often argues that it has a duel mission that it must balance recreation with preservation. Yet, this is incorrect. The Organic Act of 1916 establishes for the  National Park Service a single mission which is to provide enjoyment of the national parks in such a way that will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations. The law does preclude what we understand as modern recreation, nor does it mandate it however. Rather, the law clearly states the Park Service is only to allow those form of enjoyment that leave the resources unimpaired. Surprisingly, the Park Service has yet to complete neither a system wide recreation review nor even a single park review. There is no way for the NPS to know if its recreation is impairing the resources without this review. As President, I encourage you to conduct these reviews.

4. Get control of Visitation
National Parks are quite popular. In fact, 2015 set an all time visitation record at more than 305 million visitors. This smashed last year's record by more than 15 million! These incredible visitation numbers clearly show that the national parks are well loved, however the parks may soon become loved to death. Some are even calling upon the National Park Service to establish park carrying capacities.  In fact, Congress ordered the Park Service more than 40 years ago to come up with these capacities, yet the NPS has failed to do so.

Rather than recognize visitation limits, the Park Service has over the past several years actively promoted the national parks with programs like Find your Park. These programs have been so successful, pushing visitation to all time records.

It's time to recognize that national parks have limits on their ability to absorb visitors.
5. Recommit the Service to its Mission
Twenty Sixteen marks the 100th birthday of the national park system. It is a time to celebrate and look back upon the Park System's achievements the last century. However, it also provides an opportunity to look forward to set the tone for the Park System's next century. I'd encourage you to set the tone for the next 100 years by achieving the following before the end of your first term: fully fund the parks, establish new parks, define and enforce appropriate recreation, and establish need visitation controls. 

Doing these simple tasks will set the parks on a trajectory which will best insure they reach their bicentennial.

Sean Smith is a former Yellowstone Ranger, and an award winning conservationist, TEDx speaker, and author. He writes national park thrillers from his home in the shadow of Mount Rainier National Park. To learn more about his thrillers click here or follow him on twitter: @parkthrillers

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