Are State and National Parks Going Extinct?

Candice Gaukel Andrews September 4, 2012 18

Are some of our most visited—and beloved—free public lands in danger of becoming closed or off-limits for our recreational use? ©Eric Rock

As wildlife seekers and nature enthusiasts, we tend to rank state and national parks high on our lists of favorite travel destinations. And with 6,624 state parks (the term state parks also includes designations such as state recreation areas, state beaches and state nature reserves), 41,725 miles of trails, 207,063 campsites, and 7,161 cabins and lodges across the nation in the state park system, access to wild and free public lands is available to just about everyone. In fact, more than 700 million of us visit a state park every year.

But a disturbing trend is afoot that could—taken to the extreme—make our state parks as we know them go extinct. In May 2012, California announced that it would be forced to close 70 of its 279 state parks by July due to budget cuts and the economic downturn. Other states have since announced their own lists of parks that could soon be closed due to lack of funds.

If this is happening to our state parks, will our national parks soon follow suit?

State parks: bringing in business

California’s state parks have been hit hard by budget cuts. What will this mean for national parks, such as Yosemite? ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

With the help of local nonprofit organizations, such the Sempervirens Fund and the Valley of the Moon Natural History Association, some of those 70 California state parks have been able to avoid closure—at least for a few more years. But the crisis is far from over. The state, which has chronic deficits, has slashed the parks department’s budget by more than $50 million over the past four years. And more than $1.3 billion in maintenance has been deferred. Campsites have become overgrown with weeds, and some buildings and roads have fallen into disrepair, rendering them unusable. California—and many other states—may have to find new, innovative ways to manage their public lands, and that may mean turning some operation functions over to private businesses.

Many for-profit corporations are already generating revenue for some state parks. When a climbing or rafting outfitter leads trips in a state park, for example, it pays the government a fee to do business there. But as these private businesses expand their offerings and take over a larger, more visible role in the day-to-day operations of the parks, the very meaning of “state park”—given to the public for free recreation—could change. “Free recreation” could soon have a price tag placed on it, or businesses could decide to close certain portions of the parks at will for their own cash-generating activities, such as for weddings or corporate parties.

Despite the recent discovery that for more than a decade the California Department of Parks and Recreation had failed to report $54 million stowed in special funds, the available portion of these monies will hardly chip away at the 1.3 billion in deferred maintenance projects statewide. This sad story is repeated all over the U.S.; the state budget for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, for instance, is half what it was 10 years ago.

As parklands become privatized, how will wildlife be affected? ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

National parks: feeling the pinch

Following more than 10 years of scrimping and deferring maintenance projects, the strain is beginning to be felt at national parks, too. A 6 percent budget cut was absorbed in the past two years alone. For the past three years, New Mexico’s Bandelier National Monument has lacked the money to hire a specialist to protect its archaeological ruins and resources; and Virginia and North Carolina’s 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway, which curves along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains, has a $385 million backlog of maintenance projects and has been unable to fill 75 vacant positions since 2003. In Yosemite National Park, projected budget cuts will most probably result in more trash on the trails, shorter hours at visitor centers, longer lines at information booths, fewer open campgrounds and fewer seasonal rangers.

The National Parks Conservation Association has started a campaign that points out that the U.S. National Park Service’s roughly $3 billion annual budget represents just a 14th of 1 percent of the entire federal budget and that slashing this minuscule amount even more could affect nearly 260,000 jobs across the country.

If the alternative to a closed national or state park is one that is open but operated by a private business, the second scenario may be the better option. We already know how much being outdoors benefits our mental and physical health and that of our children. If our state—and national—parks close, where will we go?

Do you think a larger private-business involvement in the operations of our state and national parks is an idea whose time has come? Is it the only viable way to save our parks from closure?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,



  1. Mike Hannum October 3, 2012 at 7:22 am - Reply

    Absolutely – NOT!

    What’s needed is fiscal responsibility on the part of government at all levels. Fewer bailouts, fewer subsidies and fewer tax breaks will divert funds back to our parks and wild lands. Start with the billions of dollars in subsidies the energy industry receives and you’ve got a great start of solving this crisis.

  2. Lydia September 26, 2012 at 10:10 am - Reply

    I am on the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Advisory Panel on State Parks and Outdoor Recreation. They are not a general fund priority, but in Michigan, we have found creative ways to fund our park system. The income they generate is significant and therefore should be on the roadmap to success for any state with an abundance of natural resources. The sense of place and regional identity they contribute to is priceless.

  3. Lydia September 26, 2012 at 10:09 am - Reply

    Well, the quality of an area’s natural resources/access are determinants in attracting young talent. If the states can recognize that, it could be a springboard. Also, hunting and angler numbers and spending are up. I’ve watched years of decline, and I refuse to be entirely pessimistic about this issue. I’ve watched environmental literacy and No Child Left Inside movements launch. It may take us a while, and it may not look like what we started with, but change is inevitable. That is why the Nat’l Parks attempts to return the flora and fauna to their “pre-European splendor” are moot.

  4. Nico Kivindyo September 6, 2012 at 8:08 am - Reply

    It may be in jeopardy if we don’t adapt proper management approaches as well develop strategies which can be implemented at the stipulated period of time without strain.

    We also need to have some preparedness for each park to avoid disasters happening and if they happen we have the resources to address them eg drought, floods, fire, donor crises among others.

  5. Joe September 5, 2012 at 4:55 pm - Reply

    No, keep business out of our parks. S. Mather may have thought that people needed to love national parks if they were going to survive, but half a century later we were loving our parks to death. Now they are dying of neglect! If it comes down to a choice between visiting Tostitos Grand Tetons and Coca-Cola Grand Canyon, or putting a parking lot at the boundary and all visitors must walk in, then I choose the later. If I’m too old to walk, I will sleep better knowing that they are there for others to enjoy.

  6. Franklin L. September 5, 2012 at 1:01 pm - Reply

    If conservationists and governments sideline communities within conservation areas and don`t empower them to be partners in conservation, Parks will become extinct

  7. Bill September 5, 2012 at 12:59 pm - Reply

    I would lke to add that the 150 million acres of the National Wildlife Refuge System and the National Forests are all in the same position financially. There are ways to keep the system “afloat”,but, it takes a consistent effort by Congress. The budgets fluctuate so very much that it is impossible to manage effectively. Each agency can come up with strategic plans. The culture is at a crossroads, I agree. How it will survive without its sanctuaries of nature is a huge question. I remember on 9/11 folks just walking around the refuge, just to find some peace from the madness we were experiencing that day. There is madness in our lives everyday and as some would assert. Last Child in the Woods tells us that we must keep this system afloat.

  8. Emily September 5, 2012 at 9:29 am - Reply

    Yes. Let me qualify that answer by saying what I feel is jeopardizing our parks.
    The first of course are budget cuts. These budget cuts force these parks to look at ways to increase the money flow leading to making them more recreational i.e. snowmobiles, hunting, golf, etc. In my opinion this will reduce our parks to recreational centers instead of preserving their integrity as nature preserves and wilderness areas.

  9. James E. September 5, 2012 at 9:28 am - Reply

    It would be a tragedy to see our state and national parks close or limit access due to budget shortfalls. This financial deficit however, could be seen as an opportunity for larger conservation organizations to form working partnerships with state and federal park entities. Conservation NGOs can bring the immediate value of sound business practices, institute the leveraging of public and private resources and begin outreach into the local community to build and/or strengthen a volunteer pipeline for maintenance projects.

  10. John Byrne September 5, 2012 at 9:27 am - Reply


    Good article.

    Of course, when a park is closed – park visitation drops.

    But when parks are open – visitation drops too. Visits to National Park units has dropped 25% per capita since its high in 1985. Visitation to natural areas, around the world, has significantly dropped during that time. Obesity has risen, video-philia and has risen. Nature-Deficit disorder is on the rise.

    Yes, we have to get out more, experience nature more, walk more.

    Budget constraints can make park managers re-think how things are done – what facilities to provide. The universiality of cell phones might make the need for – expensive to run – visitor centers less necessary. The need to get people out of their cars might make road building less of a priority. The benefits to – the volunteer, the visiting public, the community in which the volunteer lives, and the tax payer – us all – can be improved by re-thinking how a smaller park budget is spent.

    The Appalachian National Scenic Trail is staffed by volunteers. The federal government bought a lot of land and spends a small amount each year in park management – but the volunteers build the trails, maintain them and do all the work.

    The important things are the bears and rest of the natural world. They are the first priority. And they use up just a fraction of a park budget.

    I am for increased use of the out-of-doors. But considering the severe budget problems – and considering the obesity and nature-deficit problems – we have to revise the way parks are managed – and paid for.

  11. B.B. September 5, 2012 at 9:25 am - Reply

    Is there a safe way to merge public and private sectors to keep parks afloat? Ideas?

  12. Timothy Collins September 5, 2012 at 9:24 am - Reply

    Sad to say, they are not a state priority. Many are being allowed to decay.

  13. Sara September 5, 2012 at 9:16 am - Reply

    I hope not… Many species are depending on that.

  14. William September 5, 2012 at 5:20 am - Reply

    In Florida Governor Jeb Bush outsourced many of the activities in managing the state parks creating higher cost and increased inefficiency; state employees have had no salary improvements for five years and there is an exodus of state employees taking early retirement; many of the parks have volunteer support groups assisting with fund raising and physical assistance in maintenance (Friends of O’ Leno State Park, etc); since Governors Bush and Crist discouraged manufacturing, mining, and industrial growth in Florida, the economic recession in tourism hurt the state tax base and many parks are now operating with reduced days of operation and some parks appear neglected; continued quality management of some parks exists and new revenue streams may be necessary. The federal neglect of Everglades National Park is obvious to visitors; six years after a hurricane, the small hotel at Flamingo is still to be repaired although it was always filled to capacity and provided profits to the park; Everglades Park is an example of spending priorities, not a lack of revenue at the federal level; the park could pay for itself with proper support; parks in Florida are in trouble and the volunteer support groups keep them functional, not our governors or the legislature.

  15. Ian Humphreys September 5, 2012 at 5:18 am - Reply

    Possibly, but they have never been native to Northern Ireland. The current drive is to try and have at least one here, if we can overcome quite a bit of resistance from concerned landowners.

  16. Dave in Waterford, MI September 5, 2012 at 4:57 am - Reply

    We need these common, shared public areas, yet so many people seem to be feeling that those facilities should “just happen”, as if by magic, and that there should be no collective cost paid for their availability, operation, maintenance and upkeep. I think this has been the result of small-government (or you-can-drown-it-in-a-bathtub-sized government) backlash.

    Sadly, “the American way” seems to be morphing from a sense of shared sacrifice for the common good to only wanting what benefits ones self – and then having a bizarre sense of personal entitlement and not being willing to bear the cost of it.

    Those who are so government-loathing should stop and realize that government – at least in America – is “We the People”, all of us, collectively. We truly need our government to do those things that businesses can’t or won’t do – specifically because there is no profit in doing them.

  17. Art Hardy September 4, 2012 at 11:18 am - Reply

    I don’t think it’s all or nothing at this point. Before allowing private enterprise to get a foothold within our public assets, all other sources of revenue and funding should be explored. Hopefully, once citizens and user groups become aware of the dire needs of their parks, they’ll volunteer or otherwise help to fill the deficit of time, money and infrastructure.

  18. Phillip Tureck - FRGS September 4, 2012 at 9:35 am - Reply

    I would sure hope not parks going extinct, National and State parks are the lifeline for many people to escape their cities and day to day lives and to see the beautiful habitat and animals that live there.

    So many holidays and vacations possible in these parks or close to them and budgets should take into account a sum to keep the parks maintained and running to optimum levels.

    At some point it may be that business gets more involved in sponsorship and promotion of the parks but in essence it is the government/states duty to preserve these places.

    People know my motto and key saying

    Extinction is forever

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