National Parks in Peril: Less Funding, More Pollution

Every summer millions of Americans travel miles to escape suburban sprawl and urban pollution to vacation in the 387 national parks across the country. When they arrive, however, they are in for an unwelcome surprise. Many of our national parks are overrun with visitors, have overtaxed and inadequate facilities, and suffer from serious air pollution. There are summer days in some parks when the air is as bad as a Code Red day in Los Angeles.

Although these kinds of problems in the parks are not completely new, they have been exacerbated by the policies of the current administration, which has not adequately funded the National Park Service or taken the necessary steps to protect the parks.

Park Funding: Empty Promises

During his 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush pledged to spend $4.9 billion to eliminate the maintenance backlog at national parks, but over the past three-and-a-half years his administration has provided only $662 million, according to a March 2004 study by the National Parks Conservation Association. The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, estimates the maintenance backlog now is between $4 billion and $6.8 billion. On average, national parks are operating on only two thirds of the necessary funding, a systemwide shortfall that amounts to more than $600 million annually.1

Interior Secretary Gale Norton recently has been defending the administration's record on parks, pointing out in press interviews that the National Park Service budget has increased overall. That is true. However, she failed to point out that over the past 10 years, the federal government has added more than 20 parks, historic sites and monuments to the system2 and that fixed costs, such as those for utilities and fuel, have gone up, leaving less money for maintenance. The parks also have been saddled by additional costs over the past few years for increased security, firefighting, and congressionally approved salary increases that Congress did not cover in its appropriation bills. All told, the National Park Service's operating budget, adjusted for inflation, has dropped about 20 percent over the last 25 years.3

A May 2004 report by the Coalition of Concerned National Park Service Retirees contradicts the Interior Department's claim that things are getting better. "Contrary to the rosy picture painted for Congress by NPS Director [Fran] Mainella, the coalition survey found a much darker and sobering reality: widespread and often deep cuts in budget, staff, maintenance and key services that will diminish the experience of national park visitors," the coalition's Bill Wade stated in a May 27 press release announcing the report. "In addition, there will be a reduced capability to monitor and protect natural resources, meet the needs of visitors and support servicewide responses to homeland security and wildland fire needs." (To see the entire release, go to

The key findings of the coalition's study included:

  • Eight of the 12 national parks surveyed are operating on fiscal year 2004 budgets that were lower than the previous year. That finding is supported by the park service's own figures. According to that data, 85 percent of all national parks that have their own operating budgets have lower budgets in FY 2004 than in FY 2003.

  • The number of employees in 2004 at all of the 12 national parks surveyed was lower than in previous years. Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area in Washington State, for example, is making do this year with 41 seasonal employees, 29 fewer than in 2002. Meanwhile, Gettysburg National Military Park employed 20 seasonal employees in 2002, but only five in 2004. Nearly all the parks surveyed had to lay off a significant portion of their workforce because of insufficient funds.

  • Six of the 12 parks surveyed already have or will cut visitor center hours or days. For example, in 2003 the Olympic National Park's main visitor center was open seven days a week. This year it is closed two days a week.4

Failing to Enforce the Clean Air Act

Air pollution is a major problem in a number of national parks, but the administration has not taken the appropriate steps to protect parks by forcing polluters to comply with the Clean Air Act. The National Park Service estimates that 112 of its 387 parks are in areas that will violate the Environmental Protection Agency's new standard for ground-level ozone.5 Ozone contributes to haze, and visibility in some parks is a fraction of what it should be. In some cases haze in the parks has reduced historically clear views of 75 miles or more to 12 miles or less.

At 9 million visitors per year, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited park in the country. It also is the most polluted. Ozone pollution in the park rivals that of Los Angeles, violating federal health standards more than 175 times since 1998 and damaging 30 species of plants, including black cherry and yellow poplar. Under natural conditions, views historically extended for more than 100 miles. Because of air pollution, however, park visitors can expect to see only as far as an average of 25 miles. During the summer, visibility averages only 14 miles. Meanwhile, the rainfall in the park is five to ten times more acidic than normal. The rain deposits nitrates that are six to seven times the amount that the park's soil can naturally process, damaging and threatening sensitive plants and aquatic life.6

Ignoring the Science

The Interior Department also has damaged national parks by ignoring recommendations from National Park Service scientists and instead siding with industrial polluters. For example, in 2002 the Interior Department withdrew its opposition to a proposal by Peabody Energy Corp., the world's largest coal company, to build a 1,500-megawatt coal-fired power plant 50 miles west of Mammoth Cave National Park. The air at Mammoth Cave already is more polluted than nearly every other park in the country, and National Park Service scientists determined the proposed plant would make that pollution worse. According to the internal agency documents, Deputy Interior Secretary J. Steven Griles and National Park Service Director Fran P. Mainella were personally involved in deliberations that led the Interior Department to accept Peabody's claims that the power plant would not affect the park's air quality. Documents obtained by NRDC show that Mainella ordered career officials at the park to drop their opposition and reach a compromise with the company.7

The Interior Department also overturned a widely supported National Park Service decision to ban snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park. Snowmobiles cause air, water and noise pollution. Their engines, which can be heard as far as 20 miles away, distress wildlife and intrude on other park visitors, and the pollution they spew threatens the health of visitors, wildlife, and park staff. After two thorough studies, the park service, with the support of the EPA, concluded that the best way to protect the park's resources was to phase out snowmobiles. After Secretary Norton objected, the park service backtracked and actually proposed to increase the number of snowmobile allowed in the park, albeit under some restrictions.8 The status of snowmobiling in the park is in limbo because of conflicting court rulings. In the meantime, Secretary Norton plans another study before determining the rules for the 2004-2005 winter season.

Americans Support National Parks

Our national parks, which attract more than 400 million visitors a year, offer Americans an opportunity to reconnect to nature and provide critical habitat for a variety of animal and plant species. They truly are national treasures, and it is incumbent upon our public officials to ensure that they are protected not only for today, but for all time. That means giving them the funds they need for maintenance and staffing, and basing policy decisions on what the science tells us is best for the environment and public health. It also means vigorously enforcing the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and other bedrock environmental laws.