How can we protect our National Parks? Here’s an idea.

Thirty-three years ago, I co-wrote a story for Environment Magazine that highlighted the “irreversible damage” being done to our national parks, according to a growing chorus of concerned park superintendents. As we take a close look at our nation’s parks and monuments during this year, their centennial, it is apparent that the maintenance and upkeep problems have gotten worse, even as the park system has expanded.

Protected federal lands are essential to the West’s economy: They attract innovative companies and workers and are a powerful component of the region’s competitive advantage. Increasingly, entrepreneurs and families who work remotely relocate to places based on their quality of life. So I’d like to propose a solution for the Park Service’s maintenance difficulties. I can’t claim credit for inventing it, because it’s not a new idea: President Franklin D. Roosevelt pioneered the way when he created the Civilian Conservation Corps during the economically desperate 1930s.

In 2011, I was one of over 100 economists who concluded that a new Civilian Conservation Corps was needed, so we wrote a letter to President Obama, urging him to revive the program. His administration moved fast, proposing a $1 billion effort that also aimed at helping veterans returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. I naively thought that both Democrats and Republicans would support such a worthwhile program, given the historical fondness for the old Conservation Corps, which helped so many families during the Great Depression. Boy, was I wrong. The presidential election was coming up, and a party-line Republican vote defeated Obama’s proposal.

Now we’re in another election year, but this time, both presidential candidates are eager to promise that they would spend on the order of  $275 billion (Hillary Clinton) to over $500 billion (Donald Trump) on various public projects to “fix” our national infrastructure. Still, this is a drop in the bucket compared to the estimated $4 trillion that the American Society of Civil Engineers says the country needs. 

Proposals from the candidates to repair our national parks, however, are either inadequate or entirely absent. Earlier, Bernie Sanders was the exception; he co-sponsored the Rebuild America Act of 2015, which would set aside $3 billion a year to improve both our national parks and other public lands. 

As for Clinton, she proposes replacing the Land and Water Conservation Fund with an American Parks Trust Fund and roughly doubling its funding. The average annual appropriation for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which gets its money from offshore oil and gas drilling, has been a paltry annual $40 million for federal lands, and that money is often diverted by Congress to other uses. In any case, the public-land need is in the billions, with the Park Service alone facing a $12 billion backlog of deferred maintenance projects.

Neither candidate’s proposal is necessarily benign: Clinton says she wants to increase oil and gas production, as well as renewable energy, on public lands, and Trump’s Republican Party has been at the forefront of proposals to either turn federal land over to the states, or to privatize the public lands.

Both candidates say that they will work hard to put people back to work, especially the “angry” people who say they feel forgotten, or discounted. If so, there’s a ready-made solution for such people, especially our returning war veterans: Put them to work repairing roads, bridges and buildings in our national parks and on our other public lands. This would give veterans a chance to transfer their hard-earned skills from military war zones to peaceful public purposes. The program could also be expanded to help workers displaced by jobs going overseas, something that politicians often promise but seldom achieve.

Our public lands generate ecological, social and economic benefits that last for decades, if not centuries, and they need to be funded by long-term debt. These lands were not set aside to become cash registers, and relying on the free market to monetize them is fruitless. It is long past time that we drop the austerity policies that keep failing our public lands.

What can we do as Election Day draws near? We can put the candidates on the spot by asking if they support a Civilian Conservation Corps along the lines of the one proposed by President Obama. Our national parks, forests and rangelands and our prized fishing, hunting and hiking areas have all been neglected. We say we cherish our wide-open spaces; well, it’s time we made them healthy again.

Gundars Rudzitis is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is professor emeritus of geography at the University of Idaho; his next book is the forthcoming The Ongoing Transformation of the American West.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you’d like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].