What's killing our national parks? Apathy.

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"Our mountains and rivers are a part of who we are and they are the birthright of all our people." On May 29th, President Barack Obama opened the 30-day celebration of Great Outdoors Month honoring our national heritage with a Presidential Proclamation. America is known for its “purple mountain majesties” and its glorious wilderness, from deserts to temperate rain forests - but for how much longer?

This is because the law that created the federal program that operates as a primary source of revenue for national parks, the Land and Conservation Fund, is set to expire in September if Congress cannot agree on a renewal, putting the maintenance and accessibility of our most treasured outdoor spaces in jeopardy.

National Parks already suffer from an annual operations shortfall of more than a half-billion dollars, even though they generate nearly $27 billion in economic activity each year. And chronic underfunding of National Parks has led to an $11.5 billion maintenance backlog, which has left campgrounds and trails in disrepair — a reality that is expected to only worsen as the NPS prepares for its 2016 Centennial a little over a year from now.


Perhaps the vulnerability of our most iconic outdoor spaces has to do with their limited popularity. According to a 2013 Outdoor Foundation Report, less than half of all Americans participated in some form of outdoor recreation in 2012. The report found that the primary reason Americans don't go outside for fun more often is lack of interest — they prefer to watch TV. And if they do become attracted to nature, it's usually because nature offers opportunities for exercise, like running, which the Foundation calls a “gateway activity”.

Another factor in Americans’ disinterest in the outdoors is a lack of access. People of color — and adolescent girls — for example, have the lowest overall participation in outdoor recreation, according to the 2013 report. (Caucasians make up 70 percent of outdoor participants; African-Americans comprise 11 percent; both Asian/Pacific Islanders and Hispanic Americans make up 7 percent.) The optics inside parks aren’t good either: In 2014, an extensive report by Grist's Brentin Mock explained that staffing in the National Park Service has been predominately white throughout its century-long history and that it ranks low among federal agencies for overall diversity in workforce. According to Mock, the NPS numbers show a roughly 82 percent white workforce, with black workers making up just above 6 percent of the staff. For Latino Americans, it’s less than 5 percent; Native American, less than 3 percent.

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I am perhaps an unlikely fan of the wilderness. Growing up in New York City in the 1990s, Central Park was my main reference point for anything remotely close to nature. I was introduced to the great outdoors in 1997, when I spent a summer in college as a camp counselor at the Fresh Air Fund. The fund, founded in 1877 to help children living in crowded tenements enjoy summer experiences that might help ease their respiratory ailments, evolved to serve all sorts of New Yorkers, like inner city kids without safe, relaxing places to play.  My time with the Fund was unforgettable, giving my campers and I the opportunity to swim without worrying about chlorine in our hair, and sleep under a vast night sky, with stars clustered magnificently as far as our eyes could see. It felt as if Obama's words were true, that nature was our birthright.


Enjoying nature, of course, costs money, which is easy for people — even me — to forget. While living in Austin, Texas, I would appreciate the stunning scenery in and around Lady Bird Lake but rarely stop to think about what it might cost to maintain. (Or what I might do if I could no longer visit.) During a recent 2-day getaway to Shenandoah National Park, I grimaced a when a park ranger charged me $15 for a weeklong pass, filled with all the indignation of someone who felt entitled to spend time in the mountains without offering anything in return.

Of course, in the end, the visit was more than worth the price of admission; I returned to my everyday life as a writer in Washington, DC replenished and renewed. Besides, there is something to be said for supporting what you love, in any way that you can. Our outdoor resources, including 84 million acres of land in our National Park System, are perhaps our most accessible means of finding rejuvenation and inspiration. Now that we are poised to celebrate a century of its establishment, I hope all of us can stop taking it for granted. Here’s how you can start: find your park and go outside.


Joshunda Sanders is a writer based in Washington, D.C. She blogs at joshunda.com and tweets @jvic.

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