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The State Of The Nation's National Parks


President Trump's July Fourth celebration is taking place on the National Mall, which is part of the National Park System. The Washington Post is reporting the National Park Service is redirecting about $2.5 million to help pay for the festivities. At the same time, the entire National Park System, which includes 418 national park sites, has been struggling with chronic underfunding for years. Deferred maintenance is in the neighborhood of $12 billion, and the parks rely on more than 200,000 volunteers.

Theresa Pierno is the president and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association. They're an independent group that advocates on behalf of the National Park System. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

THERESA PIERNO: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

CORNISH: First, can you tell us what we mean when we say deferred maintenance? What does that look like across, you know, 400-plus park sites?

PIERNO: Well, of the $12 billion, half of that is roads and bridges and major construction projects that are really important for transportation in the national parks. And then the other half account for everything from the important stormwater management systems, septic systems, bathrooms, trails, any of the buildings we have.

Within the National Park System, there are more structures than all of the other departments except the Defense Department. So you're talking about 75,000 structures that they have to maintain. So this backlog is very significant and has a tremendous impact on whether we're going to be able to protect and continue to restore and see these parks for the future.

CORNISH: But that number we said in the introduction, 12 billion, is huge, right? So...


CORNISH: ...The 2 1/2 million that might be redirected for this celebration - is that that big a deal?

PIERNO: It is because, you know, that comes on top of - if you recall in December, the federal government shut down. And so there was a loss of about $6 million in fee revenue during that time. And these fees, remind you, are used for general kind of projects and maintenance within the national parks. And some of those projects are very small. It might be, you know, $10,000 or $5,000, but it's very important to that individual park. And so when you take away fee revenue, you really take their ability to just take care of general maintenance - keeping the bathrooms open or taking care of a specific trail or project that is critical to the visitors of that national park.

CORNISH: What are the long-term implications of so much deferred maintenance? How much longer can the National Park System go on like this?

PIERNO: Well, that's a great question. And I think that for most people, what happens is they get chipped away at. So the experience - the park may still be there, but the problem is you might not be able to go into historic structures, or you might start to see a reduction in the ability to camp in parks because the campsites are in such disrepair. So it's a constant chipping away at something that is a treasure. People come from all over the world to see our national parks.

CORNISH: In the end, is there something that strikes you about the idea that this money would be diverted to help pay for the president's July Fourth celebration?

PIERNO: Well it's - it shows tremendous disrespect, which has been continual with this administration, to our national parks with recommendations of enormous budget cuts. They've continued to not fill the position of the director of the National Park Service, which is a critical leadership position. So in so many ways, the parks are threatened. And then to see more money diverted away from national parks for a parade, I'm shocked, and I think that the public will be, too.

CORNISH: Theresa Pierno is the president and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association. Thank you for speaking with us.

PIERNO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.