Five Things Democrats Must Do to Protect Our Parks
By Theresa Pierno
As the Democratic National Convention continues in Philadelphia this week, much of the focus has been on the Democrats’ policy platform for the fall election. In their platform, Democrats call for “conservation and collaborative stewardship of our shared natural heritage,” and includes many broad and bold pledges to protect our country’s natural resources and public lands, including our national parks.
It is appropriate that these pledges are happening in Philadelphia, where sites like Independence Hall and nearby Valley Forge represent our fight for independence. Our national parks help tell the story of our nation, making it critical to protect, fund and enhance our parks so future generations can experience these important pieces of the American story.
These pledges come at a critical time when the National Park Service is celebrating its centennial, but also a time where the very protections and policies that our national parks and public lands rely on are under threat. Just two weeks ago, a majority of members of the House of Representatives approved a spending bill that included dozens of amendments that would weaken or eliminate those protections and policies we rely on to preserve our parks.
Many Democrats fought against these amendments, and their party platform demonstrates a commitment to protecting our parks and public lands, but the reality is that on this centennial of the National Park Service, the challenges parks face are great and varied. If Democrats wish to truly stand up for our parks in the centennial year, here are five steps they must advocate for this fall, and must act on come January 20th.
1. Fully Fund our Parks
After a century of protecting America’s favorite places, our national parks are showing their age. Our parks have nearly $12 billion in needed repairs, and yet, last year the Park Service received only 60 cents out of every dollar it needed just to keep its repair backlog from growing. Democrats pledged in their platform to address the repair backlog at federal land agencies, including the National Park Service, but the best way to help our parks is to ensure they have the funding they need to both address their backlogs and prepare them for another century of service.
2. Support Our Park Rangers
Park rangers are among the most respected and trusted employees in the federal government, and with good reason. Park rangers protect wildlife, maintain our trails, guide our way through amazing landscapes and teach us about our history. But when national park budgets are slashed, it is often our rangers who are the first to go. There were at least 2,000 fewer full-time ranger positions in 2015 than there were just five years before. For those rangers that are left, they are forced to operate national parks on shoestring budgets. Democrats need to make sure rangers have the resources and support they need to protect our national parks.
3. Preserve Our Park Waters
The lakes, rivers and streams that run through our country serve as the lifeblood of our national parks, yet they remain under constant threat from encroaching development, pollution, demands for use and climate change. More than half of national parks have waterways considered “impaired” by the Environmental Protection Agency, meaning that they fail to meet Clean Water Act water quality standards, yet Congress voted five times in 2015 to stop protections for our national park waters from being enforced. Democrats need to reject these attacks and champion solutions to protect our nation’s waterways.
4. Protect Park Wildlife
Animals such as the grizzles and wolves that cross the rugged hills of Yellowstone are some of the most iconic elements of our national parks. Our parks are critical to protecting wildlife, providing habitat where it can thrive. Unfortunately, too many in Congress are working to remove safeguards for wildlife in the very places these animals should be protected. In their platform, Democrats pledge to take steps to protect native species and wildlife, including opposing efforts to weaken the Endangered Species Act. Those steps should include ensuring parks remain safe refuges for our nation’s wildlife.
5. Save the Antiquities Act
For more than a century, the Antiquities Act has been an invaluable tool for protecting our shared heritage as a nation. From the Statute of Liberty to the Grand Canyon, presidents from both parties have used this act to preserve places of natural, historical, and cultural significance for future generations. Yet, time and time again, many in Congress try to undermine or eliminate the act. The Republican Party’s own policy platform calls for weakening the act. Democrats commit to protecting “natural landscapes and cultural sites that tell the story of America’s complex history,” and a crucial part of fulfilling that pledge is by making sure the Antiquities Act remains the important conservation tool it is today.
In this centennial of the National Park Service, as Democrats meet in the city where our nation was born 240 years ago, now is the time for them to commit to ensuring our national parks have the resources, protections, and support they need to continue protecting America’s favorite places.
Theresa Pierno is Chair of the National Parks Action Fund.