National Park Service sites in California, both real and imagined, challenge the agency as it celebrates its 100th anniversary Thursday.
The existing parks must manage more tourists – and their cars. The 809,029 visitors to Yosemite last month marked nearly a 19 percent jump over July 2015. Sequoia, Kings Canyon and others have posted similar increases.
“We've been impacted by a lot of cars, and getting them parked,” Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman said Wednesday. “It’s all been good, though. Great to see visitors on this centennial year.”
Gediman speculated that the “centennial, good snowpack and waterfalls, low gas prices, people traveling and strong international visitation” have contributed to the increase.
Among the park admirers has been President Barack Obama, whose trip to Yosemite in June is captured in what’s billed as a first-of-its-kind “virtual reality experience” to be made public Thursday by National Geographic and Oculus. a digital technology company.
It’s fun to create a new park. It’s just not sexy to talk about replacing the sewer system in a park.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah
The visitation increase further complicates life for lawmakers and federal officials already juggling stagnant budgets, an $11.9 billion maintenance backlog and proposals for additions to the 413 sites the National Park Service now oversees.
“As the park service has acquired more and more land, units and responsibilities, it has fallen dangerously behind on maintaining and properly managing what we already have,” Yosemite-area Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, said Wednesday.
In a similar vein, Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, added Wednesday that he’s concerned about “the tremendous maintenance backlog . . . as well as the aging visitor service system.”
Yosemite alone has accumulated $555 million worth of deferred maintenance projects, according to the park service, while at Sequoia and Kings Canyon the maintenance backlog is pegged at $160.3 million.
Still, while park resources are stretched, broader ambitions abound.
Park service officials told us that flat or declining appropriations have made it difficult to cover increases in salary and expenses for agency employees and to address the agency’s growing maintenance backlog.
Government Accountability Office
One bill in the House of Representatives, authored by Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Hemet, would establish a new Cesar Chavez National Historical Park in honor of the late farmworker organizer. Another, by Democratic California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, would expand the Death Valley and Joshua Tree national parks.
Several bills would establish the Tule Lake National Historic Site to commemorate a World War II Japanese-American internment camp in remote Modoc County. One would expand the San Francisco Bay Area site honoring conservationist John Muir, who helped preserve Yosemite.
The park service currently manages about 84 million acres nationwide.
“It’s fun to create a new park,” Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, the chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, said at a bill markup earlier this year. “It’s just not sexy to talk about replacing the sewer system in a park.”
Beyond California, myriad proposals are floating through the 114th Congress. There are measures to designate parks around South Carolina’s Civil War-era Fort Sumter and the Georgia birthplace of civil rights advocate Martin Luther King Jr. and another to rename a small Washington, D.C.-area park feature after former first lady Nancy Reagan.
There’s a bill from Arizona Republican Rep. Matt Salmon to ban the park service from studying “how artificial light affects the movements and behavior of insects.”
For any proposal, the likeliest route might be insertion into an omnibus package that lures widespread political support. In July, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved more than 40 public lands and resources bills that included the John Muir and Tule Lake proposals from California.
Other, farther-reaching legislation, too, is seeking traction in an election-shortened congressional year.
House Democrats and Republicans, notably, offer competing versions of the identically named National Park Service Centennial Act, with differences ranging from America the Beautiful Senior Pass pricing to the handling of intellectual property like the Yosemite-area names trademarked by the park’s former concessionaire.
Sidestepping Congress altogether, Obama on Wednesday reinforced the park service’s roster with his designation of the 87,500-acre Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in Maine.
The addition comes as the park service struggles to meet existing demands, with the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office noting this year that agency funding has lagged behind inflation.
The park service funding of $3.1 billion in 2014 – including fees, donations and appropriations from Congress – marked a 3 percent decline from 2005, after inflation.
“Congress has to step up to the plate,” Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, who formerly represented Yosemite, said Wednesday. “The fact of the matter is that too many of my colleagues are unwilling to provide the kind of support the park service needs and deserves.”