Photo: Clouds above red rock formations

A million years of flowing water has cut through the red and white beds of Navajo sandstone that form the sheer walls of Utah's Zion National Park.

Photograph by John Crane, My Shot

America’s national parks boast a very rich history, but their stewards always have an eye toward protecting them for the future.

Today the parks face a daunting array of challenges, from land development and climate change to budget shortfalls and the changing culture of America itself.

“One of the greatest challenges we face is in making the National Park Service relevant to all Americans,” explains David Barna, public affairs chief for the National Park Service.

Barna cites a need to inspire new generations of urban youth with the wonders of nature. He also warns of a loss of cultural literacy. That problem poses a serious threat to a system in which two-thirds of the parks were designated because of their historic or cultural relevance.

Those Americans who do love to visit the parks are choosing to use them in more conflicting ways. Off-road drivers and backpackers, snowmobilers, and stargazers each have their own vision of how best to enjoy America’s parks. But these diverse activities and attitudes create usage conflicts that must be managed to provide the best experience for all while preserving the parks' ecosystems and natural characters for the future. (See the top ten issues facing the national parks.)

An Eye on Climate Change

Of course, nature itself never stands still, so no park can be preserved unaltered. But climate change may rapidly shift the ecology of many parks. Extended droughts and fire seasons, low-flow rivers, and rising air and water temperatures may force plant and animal species alike to adapt or perish.

Park managers must also adapt to this shifting landscape if they are to protect it. To do so they must first understand the changes that are taking place.

“Good science is essential to the well-being of parks, and it is something that Director [Jonathan] Jarvis insists on,” Barna says. “Peer-reviewed science will play a foundational role in management decisions, especially in confronting climate change.”

Tackling the many serious challenges facing the national parks will take funding. Unfortunately, the current economy means that, like everyone else, the Park Service must tighten its fiscal belt.

“It is incumbent upon us—regardless of our budget—to look for innovative approaches that allow us to do our work more effectively and efficiently,” Barna says.

Huge Maintenance Backlog

One daunting economic hurdle is a staggering $9.5 billion maintenance backlog tied to needed improvements for roads, buildings, trails, water and sewer systems, and other infrastructure. Barna says the backlog is a burden, but one that can be managed.

"Just like most people who own a home, or any small town, there are always going to be projects that are in need of completion,” he says.

“Depending on your funding, you take care of the most essential ones first. However, if your pipes burst or the roof leaks, your priority list changes and things that were on the top of the list get pushed further down the list. The national parks are very much like the average homeowner or small town with the exception that we have a backlog for 392 towns, small and large.”

Some help has arrived, he says. “The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has been very helpful to us in taking care of a number of high priority projects across the country.”

Critical help will also come from the millions of Americans who cherish their national parks and make it a priority to support them by visiting, donating funds, or giving their time as volunteers. With their continued support the parks should only grow stronger despite the problems they face.

“We see being America’s best idea as a challenge to live up to,” Barna says. “Not a title to be content with.”

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