This spring, our policy intern volunteered with a group of other college students to help tackle the NPS’s maintenance backlog across the country—here’s what she learned
For many college students, spring break means piling into a car, driving to Florida, and spending a week on the beach. But this spring, I spent a week with eight other students volunteering for the National Park Service (NPS) through my university’s Alternative Spring Break program. Organized by schools across the country, students get the chance to learn about issues impacting communities near and far from home through hands-on service opportunities. As a volunteer at the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park in Georgia, I saw firsthand just some of the issues that our National Park Service is facing as we celebrate the agency’s 100th anniversary.
Fort Oglethorpe wasn’t the most glamorous destination, but it gave us an opportunity to work directly with park rangers at one of the 412 areas of the National Park System, which covers more than 84 million acres. They put us to work on Glen Falls Trail, one of the most popular places to hike in the park, and we spent our week removing invasive species that threaten native biodiversity, building rock stairs to make the trail more accessible, and pruning overgrown vegetation, like thornbushes that had the potential to injure hikers.
We also focused on making the mile-long trail safer by widening it, removing hazards like fallen trees, and improving drainage, so the trail wasn’t as heavily impacted by storms. The staff at the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park greatly appreciated our commitment to enhancing their park and working on projects they didn’t have the resources to complete on their own. By removing all the garbage on the trail, we even made a small contribution to the fish and wildlife in the area.
These projects represent just a few drops in the bucket of deferred maintenance projects that are plaguing federal land management agencies, like the NPS, that don’t receive adequate funding. Earlier this year, the park service alone reported a $12 billion maintenance backlog. NPS seasonal and full-time staff was also cut from 21,897 people in 2010 to 17,967 employees this year, despite an annual increase in national park visitation. But the issue is a lot more complex than some would make it seem. The NPS has no way to track exactly how many visitors hike or walk their dogs down Glen Falls Trail, so it’s easier for Congress to underestimate how much money the rangers need to maintain these areas.
Knowing how strained the agency’s budget has become, I couldn’t help but feel disheartened that park staff spend any time removing the amount of trash we found that week. As the daughter of a sportsman, I learned at a young age to “leave no trace,” and I grew to understand why, after catching my fair share of flip flops and chip bags (a big disappointment when I thought I was reeling in a particularly shiny fish). It detracts from our outdoor experiences and, in some cases, keeps someone else from doing their job.
So, I offer this advice as we celebrate the NPS Centennial this summer: Find your park and respect it. Teach kids and grandkids that America’s public lands are unique in all the world. Tell your lawmakers to fund conservation and support the agencies who care for our national parks and other public resources. You can also check out NPS Volunteer Days to help get the job done a little faster.
All month long, we’re celebrating the National Park Service centennial with a blog series about our most significant experiences in the parks. Check back here for new posts from the TRCP staff and special guests, and follow the hashtag #PublicLandsProud on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Shannon Fagan is the TRCP summer intern through the Demmer Scholar Program. She is going into her senior year at Michigan State University where she is majoring in Social Relations and Policy and minoring in Science, Technology, Environment and Public Policy.