NATIONAL PARKS:

Report warns of myriad threats, neglected cultural resources

America's national parks are threatened by unchecked human development, voracious invasive species and climate change and the government has failed to protect or catalog millions of priceless artifacts, according to a decade-long report released today by the National Parks Conservation Association.

The group's report, "State of America's National Parks," warns that adjacent residential, commercial and industrial developments threaten air, water and noise pollution and fragmented wildlife habitats for the National Park Service's nearly 400 parks and other attractions.

It also warns that cultural resources such as battlefields and prehistoric sites have received far less attention and funding than natural resources and are threatened by looting, vandals and a lack of qualified staff to interpret their meaning for visitors.

The report cites a recent agency estimate that 43 million of the NPS's 80 million museum artifacts were uncatalogued, and that 28 million objects were at risk of decay or loss.

"A persistent assumption exists among the public, Congress, and even some National Park Service staff that the agency's primary mission is to protect scenic wonders and wildlife, while preserving historic places, structures, and artifacts is of secondary importance -- or worse, a regrettable diversion of time and funding," the report said. "This is alarming because cultural resources are vital to helping visitors understand the significance of the people, places, and events associated with our national parks."

In addition to cultural resources, the national parks are plagued by a growing maintenance backlog that now exceeds $10 billion, threatening needed repairs to critical infrastructure including roads, visitors centers and water treatment plants.

Nearly 30 percent of the parks surveyed reported deferred maintenance costs in excess of $1 million, with Harpers Ferry National Historical Park alone having an estimated $59 million in deferred maintenance and rehabilitation costs, according to the report.

The report also warns that climate change is a "systemic threat" to wildlife and plant species including Joshua trees of California's Joshua Tree National Park and the redwoods of Muir Woods National Monument and Redwood National and State parks.

Invasive plants and animals and the disappearance of native wildlife -- a result of human interference and potentially exacerbated by climate change -- have changed both the appearance and ecological functions of most national parks, the report found.

Nearly all of the 80 park units surveyed reported missing animal or plant species, some of them crowded out by the more than 6,500 invasive non-native species the agency has documented in the national parks.

The report pointed to Cumberland Island National Seashore in Georgia, where feral hogs overgraze salt marshes, consume grasses needed to stabilize dunes and root up the nests of federally protected loggerhead sea turtles to consume the eggs, as one of several examples where invasive species have disrupted natural systems.

"The findings are sobering," the report said. "National park cultural resources are often ignored and consistently underfunded, many natural resources are being degraded, and throughout the National Park System, conservation efforts are failing to keep pace with the forces that threaten resources."

Agency, congressional action needed

The report -- the synthesis of dozens of studies by NPCA's Center for Park Research -- seeks to inform Congress, the Obama administration and the American public on the need to support and restore national parks even as rising federal deficits threaten funding for key federal programs.

It also comes as a slow economy and high unemployment makes low-cost vacations to national parks more appealing to many American families, observers note.

"This study is a call to action," said Tom Kiernan, president of NPCA. "The parks are in jeopardy, there are some serious problems ... but there is hope."

Amid increasing threats, the report recommends the Obama administration take steps to reintroduce key species of native wildlife into additional park ecosystems, control the entry of non-native plants, animals and diseases into the United States and collaborate with state regulators, NPS and U.S. EPA to ensure parks meet Clean Air Act standards.

It cites a recent agreement with the Tennessee Valley Authority to phase out 18 coal-fired power plants by 2018 and install new pollution-control technology on three dozen additional units as a model for future action. TVA plants are blamed for causing air pollution in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, drawing nearly a decade of litigation.

NPS should also develop a multiyear strategic initiative to enhance the condition of cultural resources that includes strategies for addressing an inadequate level of protection for historic buildings and historic artifacts, the report said.

"Inadequate funding, of course, is one culprit. But from the National Park Service's very inception, heritage preservation too often has played second fiddle to natural and scenic wonders -- another, more systemic problem," the report notes. "Many people, including some within the agency itself, associate the National Park System primarily with natural wonders and wild landscapes and believe those places deserve top billing."

Adjacent federal lands must also be managed cooperatively to ensure broader landscape and ecosystem health, the report said. The president should issue an executive order requiring cooperative management among state, local and tribal governments, private landholders and nonprofits. Baseline water data must also be taken to ensure quality, flows and aquatic communities are protected against mining activities on adjacent lands.

The report also asks Congress to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the primary program for purchasing new parklands and consolidating private inholdings that pose development and management challenges to agency staff. The fund is authorized at $900 million but has rarely ever reached that level in its 45-year history.

While the fund enjoys broad bipartisan support, some in Congress have questioned the Obama administration's proposal to increase the federal estate while decreasing the agency's budget for deferred maintenance (E&E Daily, March 31). Others, particularly in the West, vigorously defend the right to maintain private property against federal acquisition.

But some fiscally conservative House Republicans have indicated they are committed to adequately funding the agency's operations budget despite demands from party leaders to slash federal spending (E&E Daily, June 6). The funding is crucial to ensure national parks look their best for NPS's 100th birthday in 2016, supporters say.

The group is asking the Obama administration to craft a five-year plan for the centennial that incorporates the report's recommendations.

"We have five years to the centennial," Kiernan said. "This is a five-year window to take action right now."

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