For nearly 100 years, our national park system has sought to preserve and protect what Theodore Roosevelt described as “the most glorious heritage a people have ever received.”
Our parks inspire us, preserve outstanding scenic landscapes, and protect some of America’s most complete ecosystems.
As America celebrates National Park Week through Sunday and we approach the centennial of the National Park Service in 2016, this may be a good time to reflect on what the parks mean to us — and how we can best sustain them.
National parks are powerful economic engines for local communities. Besides protecting wildlife and habitat, preserving history and culture, and providing affordable recreation opportunities, national parks exert strong positive impacts on the economic, recreational and educational life of a community, helping to define a unique sense of place.
Here in Southern Arizona, Saguaro National Park includes superb examples of the Sonoran Desert and Sky Island ecosystems, and it preserves for future generations the plant that has become the iconic symbol of the American Southwest. With 78 percent of its 91,000 acres federally designated wilderness, Saguaro’s close proximity to the Tucson urban area presents a variety of recreational opportunities for the region’s one million residents and 4.5 million annual visitors.
A recent Park Service study found that visitors to Saguaro National Park spent $37.5 million in the Tucson community in 2012 — spending that supported 526 local jobs. And, according to the Outdoor Industry Association, Saguaro and Arizona’s other national parks are fundamental to the state’s $10.6-billion “outdoor recreation” economy and its 104,000 Arizona jobs.
The issue, in this time of federal budget austerity, is how we can best sustain our national parks.
The national parks face an annual operations shortfall of more than a half billion dollars, and the deferred maintenance backlog is nearly $12 billion.
While we know that parks funding boosts job creation and economic growth, fosters outdoor recration, and supports a tourism industry that is critical to many local communities, our national parks remain severely underfunded.
For some of our decision-makers in Washington, D.C., (from both political parties), the answer may be to rely on a philanthropic partnership that could leverage federal investments with private sector donations. A bipartisan group has been discussing a national park “endowment,” in which federal appropriations would be matched with private donations, perhaps raising a billion dollars for the parks.
While much of that money would be raised nationally — by the National Park Foundation — local “friends” groups for individual parks, such as Friends of Saguaro National Park, would also have to step up their fundraising capacities. Friends of Saguaro donors are already generous, enabling us to provide over $400,000 in project support over the past three years. Last year alone, nearly 350 individuals provided more than 36,000 hours of volunteer service at Saguaro.
Tucsonans know how important the park is to this community, and I’m confident they will help us meet the funding challenges.
So please, next time you enjoy a visit to Saguaro, I hope you’ll consider what you can do to help preserve this place for future generations.