WASHINGTON, D.C. — America’s national parks have been underfunded for decades, and partner organizations like Friends of Acadia (FOA) have increasingly been relied on to fill the gap through philanthropy or retail operations, FOA President and CEO David MacDonald said at a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing on Wednesday.
“While we once liked to describe our contributions as adding a “margin of excellence” in parks, over time, partner contributions have increasingly provided a “margin of survival” for some parks,” he said.
“The pandemic revealed the risks of this shift and underscored the absolute importance of Congress maintaining and increasing the funding appropriated for the base operating budget of the National Park Service.”
The hearing on the state of the national parks, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, was held by the Subcommittee on National Parks, whose chairman is Maine Sen. Angus King.
“Like everywhere in the last 15 months, this has been a difficult period for the National Park System,” King said in his opening statement.
“Front-line park employees had to change how and even if they could interact with the public. Many park services and visitor centers were forced to shutter. Many seasonal employees were not hired. And gateway communities completely lost their 2020 season.
“Today’s hearing will look at how the Park Service, gateway communities, concessionaires and visitors all weathered this difficult time and how we will move forward in what I predict will be…the biggest season in the history of the Park Service,” King said.
MacDonald, in addition to leading FOA, is currently president of the National Park Friends Alliance Steering Committee, a coalition of more than 250 organizations around the country.
“My respectful message to your committee today, he said “is that these special places are more important and more popular than ever following the pandemic year, and we must avail ourselves of every existing tool and also expand the toolkit with new partners and approaches to ensure that parks are adequately funded, staffed and made available to the American people for safe and rewarding experiences.”
Also testifying at the hearing was documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, whose 2009 miniseries, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” included a segment on Acadia.
“Our national parks are a treasure house of superlatives – more than 80 million acres of the most stunning landscapes anyone has ever seen,” he said.
“Congress, history tells us, [has] often found it easier to create national parks than to provide them with the resources – that is, funding – they need to operate well. The progress has come, as it always does, in fits and starts. There have been many periods of Congressional neglect.
“But there have also been moments when Congress has acted decisively.”
A recent example, Burns said, was when Congress last year passed legislation that provided funding “to address the infrastructure and maintenance backlog in the parks that had been growing for decades.”
“At the heart of the national park idea is the notion that every American is a part-owner of some of the best seafront property in the nation; they own magnificent waterfalls and stunning views of majestic mountains and gorgeous canyons.
“You represent those people and are entrusted with protecting and nurturing this precious inheritance of theirs,” Burns told the subcommittee members. “I hope you take that responsibility seriously.”
Shawn Benge, deputy director for operations of the National Park Service, also testified at the hearing.
“Reduced visitation and the temporary suspension of entrance fees to national parks beginning March 18, 2020, negatively impacted fee revenues in FY 2020 as compared to the previous year,” he reported. “Recreation fee revenue was down 19 percent, and concession franchise revenue was reduced by nearly half, a combined loss of approximately $125 million.
“On the other hand, some cost categories showed savings in FY 2020: NPS travel costs decreased by $16 million, and utility costs dropped by $5 million.”
King said he wants the Senate Subcommittee on National Parks to hold another hearing later this summer focusing on congestion in the national parks.
“It is an issue that fully deserves a hearing on its own,” he said.