It's no secret that the National Park Service is floundering. The agency is struggling to remain relevant to a generation that prefers live streams to real streams. At the same time, the service has announced the need for fee increases. And al this as the agency continues to find ways to re-introduce Americans to the national parks. But the group's latest move misses the mark and wastes money that could have been better spent preserving our nation's greatest resource.
Earlier this year, President Obama announced a plan to give fourth-graders free one-year passes to all national parks. The goal of that plan is to get kids moving and to get them outdoors while engaging with the natural world (and hopefully to grow up to care about national parks.) That's a brilliant plan.
But the latest move by the national parks is decidedly less so.
Sally Jewell, secretary of the Department of the Interior (the agency that runs the National Parks system,) recently announced plans to put a $5 million grant from the American Express Foundation toward increasing the number of volunteers in the national parks to 1 million by 2017, more than triple the current number.
I am a huge proponent of volunteering in our national parks. As an undergrad, I completed an internship with the Student Conservation Association, during which I volunteered my time and budding scientific skills to improve national park programs while gaining valuable real world experience in my chosen field. It was a win-win program for everyone.
So while I would normally promote volunteer opportunities in national parks, I worry about programs that are designed to keep the NPS from paying people to do the work that needs to be done to keep our parks open and accessible. Year after year, national park budgets have been slashed to the bone, forcing current volunteers and employees to do more with less while at the same time listening to the complaints from visitors who want to know why fees are being raised when their favorite programs are no longer available. Trust me, I've been there. It's not fun.
In a recent poll by the Partnership for Public Service, the National Park Service ranked 213 for employee satisfaction out of 315 government agencies. It boggles my mind that an agency with the most awe-inspiring workplace facilities in the country could have such low morale among its employees. But having been one of those employees, I know how hard it is to keep a positive outlook when you're asked by your supervisors to accomplish impossible amounts of work in an eight-hour day while dodging complaints from visitors who think your job is a big waste of time — even if your office does have a view of a waterfall.
So it pains me to hear about $5 million that will be spent on programs that will bring busloads of kids into a park for a day to swing rakes and pick up trash when that money might be better spent on programs that attract those kids to the parks or make it more affordable for them to visit. That's a lot of money to spend when there is no support for the rangers and long-term volunteers who are already working in the field.
The national parks are an invaluable American resource. As such, the National Park Service system includes the jewels of our country's natural, cultural and historic heritage. Americans should be as excited to work in these pristine locations as they are to visit them. The fact that they are not speaks volumes about the mismanagement of the nation's parks.
Sure, a day of volunteering might increase future engagement with the national parks, but if there are no rangers there to teach people why their parks are important, or to prevent abuses that destroy and deface those parks, what's the point?
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