National parks yield national treasure

Posted Jan. 23, 2009, at 6:23 p.m.

Barack Obama has been sworn in as the 44th president of the United States. The state of the economy is, by far, the most pressing issue facing our new president. As Congress and the new administration develop an economic recovery program for our nation, investments to improve our national parks should be an important part of the stimulus package.

Decades of insufficient funding have left our national parks here in Maine and nationwide in a delicate situation. This new administration has an opportunity to reverse this pattern, support the enduring legacy of our national parks, and strengthen our parks’ ability to renew our American spirit.

The national park system can benefit from a targeted investment of more than $2.5 billion over an 18-month to two-year timeframe. The National Park Service has identified approximately $1 billion worth of ready-to-go maintenance and preservation projects that can be undertaken this coming year. Some can be addressed in the following year as well.

At Acadia alone, more than $17 million could be dedicated to on-the-ground projects to repair natural habitats, rehabilitate roads and trails, prepare the park for energy efficient operation and control invasive species. Work could be accomplished through seasonal jobs and contractors and by following a model established more than 70 years ago.

Between 1933 and 1942, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps reinvigorated national parks by planting trees, controlling erosion and insects, and constructing fire lookouts and sewer systems in national parks nationwide. FDR also sought to modernize national park transportation systems. New roads, including the Going-to-the-Sun road in Glacier National Park and Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park were built and welcomed scores of new visitors. In Acadia, the CCC built miles of trails, leaving a legacy still enjoyed today.

Today, there is an opportunity to expand existing programs on the model of AmeriCorps and CCC to conduct other needed restoration activities, while putting people to work. A new National Parks Service Corps could employ 10,000 young people and retirees in jobs renewing our national parks, while providing high-quality skills training, learning opportunities, and life-changing experiences in our parks. In Acadia, a corps could work on controlling invasive species, help rehabilitate the former Navy buildings at the Schoodic Education and Research Center, and begin to make Acadia’s facilities energy efficient.

Our national parks play a significant role in the economies of many communities. Funding critical projects in our parks — including road and bridge reconstruction, ecosystem restoration, historic building preservation, and trail rehabilitation — will help to improve safety and public access, restore our national heritage, bring immediate economic benefits and jobs to rural communities and inner cities, and help provide strength and stability for our national economy.

A recent study commissioned by the National Parks Conservation Association found that every federal dollar invested in national parks generates at least four dollars in economic value. In Acadia National Park, the benefit to cost ratio is more than 14 to 1. Obviously, what’s good for our parks is good for the economy.

Reinvesting now in the infrastructure and ecological health of our national parks, as was done in the 1930s, creates jobs and economic activity when we need it and restores our national parks for our children and grandchildren to enjoy.

Together, we can restore our important national legacy by the 2016 centennial of the National Park Service and offer a second century of service to the nation. This is the best opportunity in roughly half a century to restore our national treasures, and Congress and the Obama Administration should seize it.

Darcy Shiber-Knowles is northeast senior program coordinator for the National Parks Conservation Association. Marla O’Byrne is president of Friends of Acadia.

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