Best of America under Threat from Underfunding

Stretching from pristine coastlines to towering peaks, from the historic sites where our nation was forged to preserves of American culture, America’s national parks protect the country’s most valuable places. Our national parks have been called America’s “best idea.”



Environment Montana Research & Policy Center


Executive Summary

Stretching from pristine coastlines to towering peaks, from the historic sites where our nation was forged to preserves of American culture, America’s national parks protect the country’s most valuable places. Our national parks have been called America’s “best idea.”

A surge of visitors came to enjoy national parks in 2009.  Nationwide, visitorship was up by 4%, to the highest level in nearly a decade.  Dozens of great parks, from the Petrified Forest to the Everglades to Glacier National Park, saw double-digit increases in numbers of visitors. Overall, two-thirds of parks, including parks in 48 states and the District of Columbia saw visitorship increase in 2009 (see Data Table, page 20.)

During a sluggish economy, national parks still provide families with affordable vacations. More people are taking trips to wild and remote places like Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, while still more are visiting parks right in their back yard, like Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco.  Parks provide invaluable opportunities to experience the country’s natural and cultural heritage and unparalleled opportunities for outdoor recreation like hiking, paddling, camping and birding. Now, when so many more visitors are exploring national parks, is a time parks should be best protected and maintained.

Unfortunately, even as visitorship is increasing, parks’ operating budgets are being cut. Overall, the administration has requested a nearly $22 million reduction in the National Park Service budget for fiscal year 2011.21  While some parks are set to receive much-needed increases in their operating funds, nearly three-quarters of parks face a budget cut in the coming year (see Data Table, page 20.) If these budget cuts are put in place, park managers will have fewer resources to maintain the parks, will be able to provide fewer interpretive programs and could be forced to hire fewer park rangers.

For years, the National Park Service has been chronically underfunded. The National Park Service budget currently falls short of what it needs to cover day to day operations by $580 million dollars: this on top of a backlog of over $9 billion dollars for parks maintenance projects. Since 2008, the annual appropriations to national parks has been increased in an effort to reduce this shortfall; if the proposed budget for FY11 is enacted, this will mark the first in three years that we are poised to add to the shortfall, rather than reduce it.

This report looks at the most recent available data for visitorship and operating budgets at national parks. It profiles many of the national parks around the country facing the bind of fewer resources at time of growing popularity.

America’s Great Outdoors

This year, the administration launched an ambitious agenda to protect our treasured landscapes and reconnect Americans with the outdoors. This program, the America’s Great Outdoors initiative, has emphasized gathering the ideas and opinions of people across the country.  Cabinet secretaries and senior staff held listening sessions nation-wide, asking Americans about the places they value.

President Obama launched the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative by declaring:

Americans are blessed with a vast and varied natural heritage. From mountains to deserts and from sea to shining sea, America’s great outdoors have shaped the rugged independence and sense of community that define the American spirit.1

No places better preserve this heritage than America’s national parks. National parks encourage families to connect with the outdoors, to camp, hike, and paddle, and to explore some of the greatest sites of natural and cultural heritage.

Protecting national parks should be a central focus of the America’s Great Outdoor Initiative.  Americans are united on this point.  In a recent poll, 86% of respondents said it was important to include protecting national parks in this initiative, agreeing that:

National parks provide us with some of the most beautiful, majestic, and awe-inspiring places on earth, but funding for our national parks has not been keeping up with what is required to adequately maintain the park system.  National parks should be honored, cherished, and cared for, not left to crumble into disrepair.2


Now is the time that America’s great places, from the summits of Glacier National Park to the shores of Acadia National Park, get the funding they need.  As millions more people reconnect with the great outdoors at America’s national parks, the funds these parks use to provide quality services and ensure stewardship should not be stripped away.  Instead of adding to existing budget shortfalls, parks budgets should be increased in the coming year.

The America’s Great Outdoors initiative should prioritize preserving our national parks. President Obama and our elected officials should fully fund the Park Service for FY11 so Americans can continue to enjoy the very best of America for generations to come. Our leaders in Washington should also act to permanently and fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund.


Visitorship data in this report comes from data collected and published by the National Park Service.20   Budget information in this report comes from the National Park Service’s fiscal year 2011 budget justification. Budget amounts for FY2010 represent the budget as enacted, amounts for FY2011 represent the President’s budget request. The data table above shows visitorship and budget data for all national parks from the most recent years available (2008 to 2009 for visitorship, FY2010 to FY2011 for budgets), sorted by state and increase in % visitorship.

While the data revealed that most parks have seen both visitorship increase and face budget cuts, parks that most vividly represent this bind were selected for the above profiles.


Over the past year, visitors flocked to national parks. Yet even as we see our parks increase in popularity, budget proposals for the coming year would cut the overall parks budget by nearly $22 million. When added to the significant operations and land acquisition budget shortfalls and maintenance backlog, proposed budget cuts would further inhibit the Parks Service from providing essential services and maintenance to an already over-strapped park system. The America’s Great Outdoors initiative is an ideal opportunity to put funding our national parks at the top of the Administration’s preservation agenda. Elected officials should act to fulfill the promise of our national parks by fully funding the National Park Service for FY11 and permanently and fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Our leaders in Washington should recognize what citizens around the country have known all along: our national parks truly are the best of America.