What others say: National parks an important part of state economy

  • Monday, February 22, 2016 8:40pm
  • Opinion

Denali National Park and Preserve is much more than the mountain and the surrounding wondrous scenery. It’s an economic engine for residents of the small nearby communities and for those who arrive in the area to run a business just for the busy summer tourist season.

One study from 2010 and cited by the National Park Service shows that, in 2008, estimated visitor spending associated with Denali National Park totaled $154 million. Of that, $50 million was for transportation — vehicle rental and air, rail and bus travel — and $17.7 million was spent on tours.

Denali is clearly Alaska’s premier park destination and is one of its main visitor industry moneymaking engines.

But engines need regular maintenance if they are to keep operating at a high output.

Denali National Park has a maintenance backlog of $52.6 million, according to a September 2015 annual Park Service report. The biggest chunk of that delayed maintenance is for roads, bridges, tunnels and paved parking areas and paved roads and totals $26.8 million. Unpaved roads in the park need an estimated $13.6 million in work. Buildings, housing, campgrounds, trails and water and sewer systems account for most of the rest of the deferred maintenance in Denali.

Denali isn’t the only National Park Service unit in Alaska needing attention, according to the annual report. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve needs about $19.4 million of work. Katmai National Park and Preserve needs about $12 million of overdue attention. A dozen other Park Service units in the state need lesser amounts of maintenance, a few of them still in the millions of dollars.

It won’t be long before Alaska’s coveted visitors begin the yearly trek north to our state, bringing with them the annual — and much-needed — boost to our economy. Whether they come to visit Denali or to spend time in any other part of the state, we want them here and we want them to go back home with a positive experience.

And that means taking care of what’s here.

Other states are in the same predicament as Alaska with regard to National Park Service conservation units. That’s because those units — parks, refuges, preserves, monuments, historic sites and such — have a combined $11.93 billion of overdue maintenance, as of a 2015 agency report.

It’s unlikely, of course, that the nation will snap its fingers and come up with the money to fix it all. That’s not realistic.

President Barack Obama’s proposed budget for the coming fiscal year does include a 9 percent increase, to $3.1 billion, in Park Service funding over the current year’s approved amount, but Congress has the final say. A February statement from the Park Service said the budget proposal includes funding for the agency’s highest priority items on the deferred maintenance list, with the aim of restoring and maintaining “all 7,186 highest priority non-transportation assets, such as visitor centers, trails and campgrounds, in good condition over the next 10 years.”

Funding to fix up the parks could get some further help from the private sector in the budget proposal.

President Obama proposes increasing the amount of money available in the Park Service’s Centennial Challenge Fund, which provides matching federal dollars to private donations, though not all of the money in the fund is dedicated to maintenance. As of early February in the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, $33 million in donations was matched with $15 million in federal funds, according to the Park Service.

Taking care of our national parks, refuges and preserves is essential, not only for the benefit of those walking the trails and taking in the beauty today but also for those who will want to walk them and enjoy them in the decades to come.

The National Park Service system celebrates its centennial this year, in August. The nation’s first national park, Yosemite, was established well more than 100 years ago; the centennial this year marks the creation of the administrative system that was put into place to manage what was at the time a collection of 14 national parks, 21 national monuments and two other protected sites.

This centennial of the Park Service can serve as a call for citizens to increase their enjoyment of the parks and to encourage greater attention to the upkeep of these national treasures. How we do it in these difficult financial times is a challenge, but it’s one that shouldn’t be avoided.

— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,

Feb. 20

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