Rudderless National Parks Adrift Without a Compass
Most Big National Park Units Lack Required General Management Plans
Washington, DC — Despite a nearly forty-year statutory requirement that every unit of the National Park System have a current general management plan, a majority of major parks do not, according to an analysis released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). As a result, most parks lack overall guidance on budgetary priorities, visitor safety or wildlife protections.
By law since 1978, every national park unit is required to have a current general management plan; each plan has a lifespan of up to 20 years. Those plans are supposed to spell out “measures for the preservation of the area’s resources,” steps for addressing challenges posed by transportation and infrastructure needs, as well as means for maximizing visitor enjoyment.
PEER examined all 59 National Parks, 19 National Preserves, two National Reserves, 18 National Recreation Areas, and 10 National Seashores in the 411-unit system. Of these 108 major units, only 51 have current general management plans. Several prominent parks, such Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Yosemite, either have no plans or have plans that are more than two decades old.
At the same time, the total National Park Service (NPS) backlog of maintenance needs has steadily grown and now teeters at a total approaching $12 billion, nearly three-times the annual NPS budget. Many parks have nonetheless invested in new or expanded visitor centers and other facilities with funds that could have been used to reduce their maintenance backlogs but instead only add to them.
“Twenty years is a long time for large parks to drift without any game plan,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that several of the “current” GMPs date back to the 1990s. “Without long-term priorities, no wonder that the Park Service maintenance backlog has ballooned out of control.”
Another effect of decades without developing a general management plan (GMP) is that public involvement with park planning is precluded. For example, GMPs are subject to public review and comment, as well as formal consideration of alternatives, under provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Parks lacking GMPs often have program-specific (such as traffic control) plans which do not undergo NEPA review.
“The American public is increasingly being shut out of any meaningful role in national park planning,” added Ruch, pointing out that only one of the 36 planks in the NPS’ Centennial “Call to Action” even mentions planning. “Amid its centennial self-celebration, the Park Service appears to accept booster-ism as a substitute for strategy and record-high visitation as a replacement for planning.”