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Do we love our national parks too much?

As Memorial Day approaches, many outdoor enthusiasts are planning their annual visits to America’s national parks. But this summer, travelers may find that their beloved parks are being loved a little too much.

In recent years, visits to national parks have reached new levels. In 2021, four of Utah’s Mighty 5 parks achieved record attendance. The National Park Service reported more than 325 million visits to parks in 2023, an increase of 13 million from the previous year. In addition, recreational visitor hours reached 1.4 billion, an annual increase of 4%.

An increase in the number of visitors also means a burden on the park facilities. At some parks, facilities suffer from neglect, with dilapidated bathrooms, deteriorating roads and neglected campsites all too common. This not only detracts from the visitor experience, but also poses longer-term risks to the integrity of our parks. Currently, the National Park System is holding more than $23 billion in overdue repairs, known as the deferred maintenance backlog, a figure that has ballooned in recent decades.

While the maintenance backlog has received a lot of political attention, and rightly so, it is only one aspect of the challenges parks face today. Park enthusiasts and policy makers need to think about innovative solutions that will help our parks thrive. The bipartisan Great American Outdoors Act of 2020 was an important legislative step to help address the backlog. This legislation appropriated significant funding to specifically address deferred maintenance needs through the Legacy Restoration Fund, providing up to $1.9 billion annually through 2025. However, with the potential reauthorization of this funding looming next year, there is an opportunity to rethink the way we care for our people. parks. And routine maintenance is critical to the way we think about park maintenance.

When a maintenance task is not completed within the planned time frame, it is referred to as deferred maintenance. When cyclical tasks such as strengthening structures, replacing parts or repaving roads are postponed for years, their conditions deteriorate. Ultimately, it takes more labor, time and resources to repair them. Addressing maintenance needs in a timely manner is essential to extending the life of park assets and ensuring visitors have the best possible experience. And any maintenance postponed later adds to the backlog and distracts from addressing new needs.

To keep up with park maintenance, we will have to be creative. For example, we could give public land managers more freedom to work with private partners, freeing up money for other tasks. This has been a winning strategy in Pennsylvania, where parks partnered with a private consortium to replace 558 structurally deficient bridges in a single project. The private partners financed $899 million, managed construction and committed to maintaining the bridges for 25 years. The National Park Service could use similar strategies to manage its unique infrastructure challenges.

Another creative option is to use entrance fees in different ways. At the approximately 100 parks that charge admission, a standard pass is valid for one private vehicle for a week, with prices ranging from $20-$35. Generally, 80% of revenue stays in the park that collected it. Local employees are authorized to spend this money without being hindered by bureaucratic approvals from afar. The remaining 20% ​​of revenue goes to the National Park Service and is distributed to parks that do not collect fees.

But there is room for improvement. For example, if tourists purchase an all-inclusive annual pass, they can gain access to all Mighty 5 parks in Utah. However, the specific park selling the pass keeps the majority of the revenue, which is to the detriment of “middle” parks like Bryce Canyon, even if they are under high visitor pressure. A related wrinkle is the America the Beautiful pass, which provides a full year’s worth of access to federal recreation sites across the country for $80. Proceeds from those passes generally go to the park service.

One way to reward parks for attracting visitors – and helping them deal with the related impacts of tourism – could be to allow visitors to reserve certain parks where they want to spend their income if they visit America. Buy a Beautiful pass.

Additionally, giving park inspectors the flexibility to experiment more with fees could open up a whole new set of ideas. This may include charging per person or per day, or passes can be tailored for shoulder seasons, weekdays or periods of fewer visitors. Parks could even consider charging a premium for the approximately 14 million international visitors who visit the park each year, as has been suggested.

Ideas like these can help us find a strategy to care for national parks in a holistic way. As we envision the future of our parks, both Congress and citizens have an opportunity to promote innovation and flexibility in park management. Let’s seize this opportunity to safeguard what has been called “America’s best idea” for generations to come. Our parks are worth it.

Madison Yablonski, @MadisonYablon on X, is a policy fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center and a member of the Young Voices contributor program.