Deb Ryun is executive director of the St. Croix River Association.
April 15-23 is National Park Week, a celebration of some of the most distinguished historic sites, monuments and beautiful landscapes offered by our vast country. It is also a time to reflect on the wonderful experience our parks provide to millions of visitors and the economic support they offer to thousands of gateway communities across our country.
Unfortunately, now also is the time to recognize that our treasured national parks are in serious danger.
For years, the National Park Service (NPS) has been unable to perform scheduled maintenance on national park facilities due to insufficient and irregular Congressional funding. This means that vital park structures – roads, buildings, wastewater and electrical facilities, to name a few – are aging and spiraling into neglect and disrepair. Some parks in Minnesota have gone without any renovations to critical infrastructure for more than 70 years.
The NPS operates a variety of different sites – including national parks, recreation areas, national monuments, historic sites, scenic trails, and riverways. As an example, the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border provides a cherished destination for individuals and families to hike, camp, boat, fish, and spend time together. However, dilapidated infrastructure is a growing problem, making it difficult for visitors to access these areas in a safe manner. Not only does this negatively affect visitors, but it also leads to a decrease in park visits that affects surrounding communities as well.
National parks are top travel destinations in the United States, and many local communities depend heavily on the revenue they generate. In 2015, over 840,000 visitors enjoyed our Minnesota national park sites every year and visitors parks support 763 jobs, and contribute nearly $67 million in jobs and commerce for local Minnesotan communities. These revenues help to support local businesses, families, and schools.
Nationwide our national parks attract roughly 334 million visitors every year, and in 2015 generated $32 billion in national economic output – so their importance is far-reaching. But they need support. In fact, national repair needs total approximately $12 billion. In Minnesota, our parks including Voyageurs, Grand Portage, Pipestone, Mississippi, and St. Croix need over $21 million in repairs combined.
These problems are solvable, and Congress needs to take the lead. By passing legislation that addresses park deferred maintenance, by providing dedicated federal funding for the parks, and by creating more public-private collaboration opportunities for park donations, this funding deficit can be eliminated.
This National Park Week, encourage your Congressional members to ensure funding to maintain our national parks for our future, to preserve the cultural heritage they represent, and to uphold the principle that our national parks are part of what makes out country great.
The St. Croix River Association is a non-profit whose mission is to protect, restore and celebrate the St. Croix River and its watershed. SCRA is the Friends Group for the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, your national park. We engage in programs and partnerships that protect the river and connect people to this globally renowned waterway. Information on SCRA programs, events, and membership can be found at stcroixriverassociation.org or by calling 715-483-3300.