a sensitive topic about NPS


Staff member
As background, you should know a few things before I start this discussion.
- I've been to more than 80 NPS sites. Got there the old-fashioned way; drove an RV or rode my motorcycle to them, and spent time in them.
- my sister used to work for the NPF (National Park Foundation; Congressional Charter organization to raise funds for the NPS) as a VP of development
- we should be able to have a conversation here without going into politics or being rude to each other; keep it civil would be a good mantra

My sister and I have had several discussions regarding the following topic ...
How many sites is enough for the NPS?

Her view - there are treasures around this great nation that are known, but because they are not in the NPS, they are "at risk" because they are either in private or State control. She views them as gems that should be collected for future generations. Every Administration believes it can add to a legacy by naming new NMs or other National lands, battle grounds, historical sites, etc. If they are not adding new ones, they are expanding existing ones. To some degree, there will always be a new discovery or revelation of some interesting geographic or geo-social point of interest. She once said it's like collecting shells on a sea-shore; you always find a new and interesting one every now and then.

My view - we cannot adequately maintain what we have now; why add more? The budget is always stretched too thin. Even she would admit that; she was in charge of soliciting money from corporations and her pleas were always based on the near-panic deficits in the NPS coffers every year. So why add more to a list that already is in crisis? This is not unlike having more kids, when you are struggling to feed the ones you already have now. As much as the NPS sites are beautiful, historical and educational, they are also falling into disrepair and neglect. Roads are bad; buildings are rotting and not up to code, equipment is outdated, etc. Sure - there will always be a few examples of success, but they are the exceptions and not the rule. The majority of NPS sites are in poor shape; you may just not notice because you're too busy taking pictures of the pretty stuff. Sidewalks crumbling, stairs broken and taken out of service, etc. So why add to a load you already cannot sustain?

Plus, I am an oddity (don't giggle, those of you whom already know me). I say that because I've been to more than 80 NPS sites, and still have many I want to see. But the average family may only see 3 or 4 in their lifetime. People like me are drawing the average up; I'm not "normal" (again, hold back your snickers LOL). So do we really need to add more NPS sites, when most folks won't do much to appreciate the every growing list? It is true that the NPS continues to see increasing visit rates. But that's really centered around the big name Parks; Yellowstone, Great Smoky Mtn, Yosemite, Arches, etc. Perhaps 25 or less Parks account for the vast majority of visitors and increasing rates. The rest have been fairly flat over the last 20-30 years. Or worse, seen serious decline in visitor rates. Tuzigoot has seen overall decline in visits. Guadelupe? Stagnant. Wind Cave? No increase. Tonto has seen as serious decline for years. MInute Man has been in a decline for 17 years. Badlands visitation has been sliding downward for more than 25 years. Lincoln Boyhood home (in my home state of IN) has seen an average decline for THIRTY YEARS! Kings Canyon? General visitor decline for FORTY YEARS !!! Many sites are in such a rut that entire generations are eschewing the sites and will never see them, ever. Shall I go on ???
You can see the visitor log data here: https://irma.nps.gov/STATS/Reports/Park/
It's so bad in some places that areas of the site are now closed to visitors because of degradation of the facilities and amenities; unsafe for people to be there (Indiana Dunes in my home state, for example). Some sites have entire sections closed off to the public because they are unsafe due to drug cartel and human trafficking activity (Organ Pipe Cactus NM); the NPS does not have enough Rangers to patrol it and the CBP won't because they view it as the NPS's problem to deal with as the CBP is already over-extended. Big Bend NP is the same way; it's always under siege of trafficking; it is one of the least visited NPs.

The NPS oversees 419 (four-hundred-nineteen!) sites. https://www.nps.gov/aboutus/national-park-system.htm And yet only about 25 or so are really enduring true growth in visitation. The big name places are actually overcrowded, and yet all the other "gems" (as my sister would call them) are languishing horribly because people are not really interested in seeing all of our treasures; they are only interested in seeing a few on a bucket list.

So if you add more sites to the NPS family, are they going to garner the same growth of visit rates like the big ones? Almost certainly they are not. And visits are what drive the funding. The big parks get big money; the others suffer horribly. Adding more sites which are unlikely to garner much attention except for die-hard folks like me, well, will end up being more neglected places that seem inspiring in view, but dilapidated in practice.

It's so bad in some sites that the State or Local government has offered to take over, but the NPS (part of the Department of the Interior) would never let that happen. Once the Fed gets it's hands into a site, it's forever locked into perpetuity of neglect. For every popular site, there probably 10 that are stagnant and 10 more that are in true decline.

Where should our loyalty lay? Gathering up more gems at the expense of what we already have? Or make good on a promise to properly maintain what currently exists, and not add to the burden with yet more burden? Is it "wrong" to take control of things you have absolutely no ability to care for, when what you add to now only steals from what already exists?

Food for thought and conversation.

PS - Wayne ... you mentioned you wanted to see "all" the NPS stuff. 419 and counting! Good luck with that! (friendly wink!) Even if you only stuck to Nation Monuments and National Parks, there are 145 to see. That excludes a LOT of other interesting NPS places. I admire your quest, but I'm way ahead of you, and I'm unlikely to ever see the entire list. I'm 55 years old, and so I've got maybe 15-20 more years of good travel left in me before age and other things will slow me down too much to see more NPS. So with 340 sites yet to go for me, divided by 20 years, I'd have to average 17 sites PER YEAR over the next 20 years, to see them "all". And that assumes people like my sister don't keep adding to the list. Although, at the rate many of them are declining and degrading, some of them may not be worth the trip twenty years from now.
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At risk of what?
I'd rather see a site in private or local hands that charge admission and or promote it. Rather than take control and due to lack of safety close it.
Admittedly, State and Local jurisdictions may see things differently; they often allow resource gathering and commercial development. The NPS essentially locks all that stuff out; it preserves the land/area in a "as it was" state with no interference.

To me it's a simple matter of affordability. The system cannot maintain itself, and even with large cash infusions from private and corporate donations, a large quantity of NPS sites are in very poor shape, and have very little public interest in visitation.

At times I like to make analogies; look at things from a perspective not previously considered. Let's think of these NPS sites as if they were old muscle cars ... Boss Mustangs, Barracudas, Camaros, etc ...
- A purist would like to buy them all up and preserve them as is, even though he cannot afford to buy them and will go into massive debt to buy them, and never be able to afford to revive them because he's spending to much in acquiring all these "gems". He not only cannot afford to care for them, but he wants to take your car away from you, ironically, because he believes you will destroy the nature and value of the car.
- A hobbyist might buy one or two in a lifetime and do a resto-mod update. The car may no longer be pure, but it will be in good condition and used with enthusiasm. It will be updated when needed, and maintained properly because of pride in ownership.

Most of the NPS sites are the same way. A bunch of purists run the Dept of Interior, and so the NPS reflects a mantra of "gather and hold them all, even if we can't afford them." The high-volume NPS sites are actually over-run; they are wildly over-used and have become (in my opinion) heavily commercialized. I've seen this in the last few decades. It's hard to get into some sites, the infrastructure cannot handle the load, etc. It's an odd combination of the following:
- the few very popular parks are overrun and in poor shape because they simply cannot keep up with demand
- the majority of other parks languish because a lack of interest generates very little income; too little to properly maintain the site

I suggested to my sister that one solution might be to significantly alter the pricing schedule for visits. The high-volume sites should charge a lot more money; that has two effects
1) higher entrance fees and concession costs will drive down the visitation rate, making them less crowded
2) higher income will provide a greater "per guest" income rate which can then be used to improve the park overall
I don't do actuarial science stuff, but I'm sure there are some talented bean-counters whom could tell us what price point would balance the interest level with the participation rate to a sustainable level. And while some folks would decry this approach (making it cost too much for low-income people to afford), just what other alternatives exist? Do we leave the parks open to massive over-use and inevitable destruction? Some sites are so crowded now that it's difficult to enjoy the experience due to huge-crowds, long waits in line, heavy vehicular flow resulting in traffic jams, etc.
Another solution is that the sites with low-popularity might need to be shed from the NPS system; get rid of the sites which cannot be maintained properly. Better to let a State or Local government use it than to let it degrade into such shape as no one can enjoy it.

A whole lot of folks get their feathers ruffled when these topics come up. There is a belief that the NPS does a great job. Well, IMO that a fallacy. They let you see what they want you to see. If you dig deep enough, the facade quickly peels away and the ugly truths lay underneath. The majority of NPS sites are in poor shape and yet the NPS continues down a road of adding to a system it has no ability to properly care for. The NPS is intent on collecting gems at the expense of caring for them once attained.

Like I said, good campfire conversation.

This well thought out post deserves a well thought out reply. I'll get back to you :)
I should be clear about this one thing ...
I'm not advocating to just make this NPS system a place for the rich; that's not my goal. I'm only saying the NPS practice of getting every Administration to continually add to the NPS load is, IMO, foolish. They cannot sustain what they already have; for goodness sake quit adding more!

There are 419 NPS sites. Take the top 25 by visitation volume and figure out a way to bump up the cost only enough to make visitation quit growing; try to dial it back slightly or at least stop growth. (Perhaps even institute an annual lottery system for visitation; not unlike hunting elk, ram and bear). Take the bottom 50 sites and shed them off to State or Local places. Try to find a balance and live within the fiscal income stream.

A few exceptions I would carve out to keep. Some parks and preserves are unique enough that they should be left intact, such as Gate of the Arctic. But Gate of the Arctic has a very low visitor rate because you pretty much have to fly in and there are no services at all. It's total remote. It does not bring in much money, but it does not cost much either. There are a couple others like that.

A few thoughts I've had about this topic without getting into politics.

The senior lifetime pass. I agree with the price increase from $10 to $80. However, why should a senior get to visit as many parks as they can for the rest of their life, including as many people as can be packed into their vehicle, for a one time free of $80? The seniors that visit many parks can afford to buy an annual pass for $80, every year. Please explain to me how this makes sense.

The annual pass. When the NPS is so tight on money all the time, is it even wise to offer an annual pass? I would think it would make more sense when you go to a park, pay to get into the park. Even if you have to pay for admission into every park, you still get the whole carload into the park for the price of one admission ticket. If I go to a private tourist site, I pay an admission price for everyone in the party, except small children, usually. Why not charge per use per person?

The parks and monuments. If you or I can't afford something, we don't buy it, period. If parks have declining visitorship and are being poorly maintained, then maybe it's time to pick which parks and monuments should be closed? I'm not saying to sell the property at auction and allow commercial use, but just close them off until there is a compelling reason to reopen them.

The NPS has to do something, make hard decisions, instead of letting most of the system languish. Oh, and stop adding new sites!!!
You, me and just about everyone I've ever talked with around a campfire seem to feel the same way. The ironic thing is that the NPS should be a system where being a good steward of the lands ought to be the top priority; but it does not play out that way. It's really just a land grab at the federal level, with no ability to maintain what is present, let alone what is inbound.

For many years, we did the Annual Pass for NPs. It was a freakin' steal! I must admit we worked the system to our advantage, but we only did what we were allowed to do. Here's how we really got away with murder, metaphorically speaking ...
We would often travel every year on a MC trip; my wife and I, and another couple. Two people are allowed to sign the NPS inter-agency Pass card as card owners. And so I would sign it, and Steve (my buddy) would sign it. That way, we could get two motorcycles in for the price of one pass. AND THAT WAS TOTALLY LEGAL AND ALLOWED BY NPS POLICY! So right there, we cut the costs in half. Then, because we typically would always travel in September to the NPS sites, and the annual pass was always good for one year to the month of purchase, we'd get two years for the price of one! If you buy a NPS pass on September 1, 2020, it's good all the way until September 30, 2021. It's tracked by the month, not the day. Buy it in month X this year, and you're good to the end of month X a year later. So we got two "families" into parks for two years of fall travel, for one $80 price. That's only $10/person over two years. And we would visit a LOT of NPS sites during that "year"; essentially an unlimited number of sites to visit for only $10/person. Not to mention that during the summer after purchase (before fall expiration), my family would use the card during our RV trips!
"Pass Owner: Person or two person(s) whose signatures are on the back of the Pass." As you can see, two "owners" can sign the one pass. Therefore two motorcycles can enter on the price of one pass. Viola!
And some folks wonder why there's no money in the NPS system? ? ?

High volume parks need to charge a lot more to both reduce traffic and increase "per visitor" revenue.
Low volume parks (most of them, anyway) need to be shed back to the States, or set into dormancy. Perhaps they could be operated on a bi-annual or tri-annual rotational basis, with limited amenities?

Somehow, our common sense does not translate well inside the Beltway, but that's all I'm going to say about that.
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