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Recovering the National Parks
Visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park try to look through the haze as they stand at an overlook. The most frequently visited park in the nation and within a day's drive for two-thirds of all Americans, the park has air quality similar to that of Los Angeles. (AP)

Visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park peer through the haze as they stand at an overlook near Townsend, Tenn., in May 2006. (AP)

In the heart of the Great Depression, thousands of unemployed Americans were put to work building the roads, trails, bridges and campgrounds of America’s national parks.

By the time our current economic crisis rolled around, many of those same facilities were in terrible shape — crumbling. And at the same time that cash-strapped American families are looking again to national parks for some affordable — and beautiful — recreation.

So, will the Obama stimulus billions rebuild the parks? This hour, On Point: We’re headed into America’s great national parks to check the trails and where they’re headed.

You can join the conversation. Tell us what you think — here on this page, on Twitter, and on Facebook.


Ron Tipton, senior vice president of policy for National Parks Conservation Association.

Roger Kennedy, director of the National Park Service from 1993 through 1997. He’s the author of numerous books, including the forthcoming “When Art Worked: The New Deal, Art, and Democracy.” From 1979 to 1992 he was director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.

Bill Wade, chair of the Executive Council for the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees. He lives in Tuscon, Arizona, and was reared in Mesa Verde National Park, in Colorado, where his father spent nearly his entire career as Chief Park Ranger. He began his National Park Service career in 1967, as a park ranger at Mount Rainier, Washington. He then worked at Yosemite, National Capital Parks, Grand Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains, Delaware Water Gap, Harpers Ferry, and finally as Superintendent of Shenandoah National Park.

More links:

The National Park Service website is a good source of information on the parks.

The Department of the Interior website details the projects in 107 national parks set to begin this summer, including a map.  From the description:

Recovery Act efforts will begin in parks across America, from Lake Mead and Yellowstone, to Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. The National Park Service projects will preserve and protect national icons and historic landscapes, improve energy efficiency and renewable energy use, and remediate abandoned mines. These projects will fall under six basic types of activities: construction, deferred maintenance, energy efficient equipment replacement, trails, abandoned mines, and road maintenance. Examples of each are as follows:

Construction projects will build, rehabilitate, or replace facilities to help preserve natural and cultural resources and ensure safe, fun, and educational experiences for visitors.

Deferred Maintenance projects will repair, rehabilitate, or maintain critical facilities to extend their useful life. The NPS will undertake major repair and rehabilitation work and will complete maintenance to improve facility conditions.

Energy efficient equipment replacement efforts will replace aging vehicles, heavy equipment, and HVAC systems with next generation energy efficient equipment. By reducing its fossil fuel consumption, the NPS will reduce its carbon footprint and fuel costs.

Trails projects will complete work to restore trails for safer use and to extend the life of trails across the national park system.

The abandoned mine lands safety projects will remedy serious health and safety concerns at the sites. A consideration in choosing a particular remedy is the ability to provide continued use of the mine openings as wildlife habitat by maintaining access and airflow.

Road maintenance projects will preserve park roads and parkways and rehabilitate deteriorated road networks. The NPS is responsible for approximately 5,450 paved miles of public park roads, 6,544 miles of unpaved roads, the equivalent of 948 paved miles of parking areas, and 1,679 structures such as bridges, culverts, and tunnels.

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  • Elly

    I think it is tragic that our national parks have been so neglected. As a professional backpacking guide I know what a treasure our national parks are. I have seen the life changing effect that interaction with nature can have on citizens of this country as well as visitors from other countries. Many times I have been embarassed by the state of our parks when seen through the eyes of foreign tourists. They ask me how we can let this happen, aren’t we the all powerful USA and we can’t even take care of our parks.

    Additionally, my great grandfather was a member of the CCC under FDR and I am ashamed to see what has happened to all of his hard work. I followed in his footsteps, dedicating a year of my life to national service in Americorps NCCC and spent months repairing trails in Roan Mountain State Park in Tennessee. We need the rest of my generation to step up and participate in national service. Being patriotic and loving your country does not have to mean enlisting in the military, it can mean helping right here in the US, building up our communities.

  • Derek Ryter

    I also grew up near Mesa Verde NP and my father was an interpretive ranger there in the 70s. One used to be able to visit the archaeological sites and experience nature. Now you wait in long lines to get tickets and can only visit one per day. It’s a circus.

    Every republican president tries to give the parks to private concession corporations and this has done more damage than anything else because they let the parks die on the vine with no funding in order to push them toward private contracts.

    The park rangers and other employees care about the parks and not profits; they are indispensable, and we need to preserve this model with more funding.

  • http://www.plcphoto.com Paige

    I am gazing out the window at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as I listen to this program and thinking how fantastic these mountains are.

    The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is 75 years old this year, and a new visitors center is breaking ground on the NC side next week. This center is not being paid for by Federal funds, but by proceeds generated by the members and work of the Great Smoky Mountains Association and Friends of the Smokies. The GSMNP is the only National Park in the country that does not charge and entrance fee, so there is very little money that comes in to maintain the park facilities. And it is the most visited National Park in the country!

    So if people are looking to get involved and help, a very easy way is to join any one of the many National Park Associations! All the money goes to help the parks and the associations do great things.

    Paige – Bryson City, NC

  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    I spent many years (’70s) as a serious rock and mountain climber in many National Parks: Yosemite, Tetons, Rocky Mountain, Arches, Zion and more.

    Yosemite Valley is a perfect example of the problem: more visitors, more problems. Cars, crime, litter, smog, and more.

    It’s a tough call: it’s important for all Americans to visit this piece of our country but if they do, the parks can’t handle it and if it remains as exclusive as it was when I spent time in them then people may be reluctant to pay taxes to support them.

  • sundy noonan

    My brother in law is unemployed in Boston, and I think these projects are a perfect fit for a single able-bodied person who is looking for work. Is there any way to get on any of these work crews in the rehabilitation of the National Parks?

    Thanks very much for any information!!

  • Bob Bouthillier

    I am glad that stimulus money will be used to upgrade the parks. My family has spent many happy vacations there, and the memories remain.

    But lets remember that in the 20′s and 30′s..if the government spent $5M…then most went to the people employed. If a trail or road or building was built, then you gave a man a shovel, or an axe or a hammer, and he worked. today, if you have $5M …how much goes to the workers, and how much to pay for equipment that may or may not be made in the US? how much for insurance, health coverage that does not put dollars in workers pockets?

  • http://www.bjmklein.com Benjamin Klein

    The memories that I have from childhood revolve around the great state parks in Wisconsin. Now that I live in Connecticut, it is wonderful to see a strong state park program out here. I think that there needs to be more support on the state level to sustain the smaller state park systems around the country as well.

  • Peter

    It is fine that there is money being given to the NPS but the contracting system in place for awarding these funds is overwhelmed and has become the choke-point for getting this important work done.

  • http://Asheville,NC Jane

    The discussion of use versus conservation is an important one. There is a great book on the subject that I commend to everyone – Mountains Without Handrails, by Joseph Sax


  • Vicki

    As a visitor to the national parks for the last 50 years I’ve been amazed and educated by what I’ve seen. Unfortunately, in the last decade of visits, I’ve been shamed and saddened by the condition of our parks. These national treasures are our best opportunities to retain our history. Imagine if the only views of the Great Smoky Mtns were in picture books. Think what the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone would look like without that protection. Gettysburg and so many other historical sites would be lost. The parks are out best window to see who we were and who we are and what we need to remember.

    Repair and maintenance should be a priority to bring our parks back. We should be proud of our heritage sites, and preserve them for future generations.

  • Adam

    I am an unemployed Collection Care Specialist. I have done conservation work on large bronze outdoor monuments and know first hand the kind of damage that can happen to exposed and uncared for monuments. In some cases very simple, inexpensive, preventative treatments can be performed before the deterioration begins. Investment in this kind of preventative conservation would be well worthwhile. Once the damage has been done,the loss is permanent, it is irreversible and the best one can hope for is to slow down corrosion. If there is opportunity for employment in this area from the stimulus money I’d like to know.

  • al

    Visit parks soon.

    Next year they will be unsafe. People who feel the need to carry loaded guns in a park are a danger to others and to wildlife. As a regular hike, I am deeply concerned.

    The need to upgrade and expand trails is clear. I hope that it can be done and soon.

  • Tom

    As a child Rocky Mountain National Park was the only place where I felt immediately “at home” other than my own home. That is still true today.

    I have a philanthropic fund raising program. I would like to know from your guests the non-profits they feel are the best for us to contact to support our national parks. There are so many worthy efforts to choose from. I would appreciate contact information to facilitate that process.

    We are ready and poitioned to start now.

  • http://art@arteck4mtc.com Art

    It should be pointed out the land acquisition backlog money would not come from tax dollars — the money comes from revenues derived from federal oil leases. The idea was to pay an enduring dividend on something we all own for something we will own forever. But the money has not been appropriated.

  • http://www.erroluys.com/frontpage.htm Errol Lincoln Uys

    FDR’s “Tree Army” took the field within two months of his inauguration – by July 1933, 250,000 young men were settled in 1,500 camps, many of them from the ranks of the tens of thousands of teenagers living as hobos on the roads and rails of America.

    In my book, “Riding the Rails: Teenagers on the Move During the Great Depression,” I tell their story and show how profoundly the CCC and the parks they built changed their lives.

    The lessons from that experience stayed with the kids for the rest of their lives.

    “My year in the CCC taught me that the world did not owe me a living. If I wanted to get ahead, I would have to earn it” said Nebraskan Wallace Horton,

    Jim Mitchell of Kenosha Wisconsin ran away from his Depression-shattered home in 1933 and was on the road for three years before joining a CCC company at Camp Norwood on the Wisconsin River:

    “The CCC was to my mind the poor man’s West Point. We learned everything about duty, honor, and obligations, and got thirty bucks a month in the bargain.

    “To this day I can go and see parks that we built in the CCC. I can see trees that we planted. It’s a living legacy. You didn’t have a living legacy on the road.”

    Few causes could be better than an Obama stimulus plan to preserve the legacy of our national parks.

    Again, in Jim Mitchell’s words: “The youth of those fateful years were taken from the steamy streets of cities in economic turmoil and from our ravaged farmlands. In the CCC camps we learned values that gave meaning to our lives. When the Axis threatened all we had worked to preserve, we stood ready to serve again.”

    You can read more about the boxcar boys and girls at my site: http://www.erroluys.com

  • Alice Apley

    Can anyone recommend a book that talks about the WPA projects in the parks? Preferably also a good summer read?

  • Zak Mettger

    This isn’t exactly “on point,” but I’m terrified by the prospect of concealed weapons inside our national parks. Until now, the only thing I’ve ever feared while in one of the parks, most of which I have visited, was bears. This appalling new legislation removes the sense of safety I and so many others have always enjoyed in the parks. We need to figure out some way to get it overturned.

  • Derek Ryter

    This is to Errol Lincoln Uys:

    Didn’t boxing great George Foreman join the CCC in Grants Pass Oregon when he was young? He spoke about just getting to eat every day was good enough for him.

  • http://www.erroluys.com/frontpage.htm Errol Lincoln Uys

    Derek, This was post-CCC era but you’re spot on. Like the kids of the Depression, George Foreman was a trobled teenager who found a new direction with Lyndon Johnson’s Job Corps in the 1960s.

    From the web: “After quitting school, Foreman joined the Job Corps. He was shipped first to the Fort Vanney Training Center outside Grant Pass, Oregon, then to the Parks Job Corps Center outside Pleasanton, California. After years of being a bully, this is where Foreman began to box. After graduating from the Job Corps, Foreman worked at the Pleasanton Center and continued to train as a fighter.”

  • Karen Wallin Usas

    I worked at Many Glacier Hotel in beautiful Glacier National Park in 1967 with hundreds of other college students. What a trip – hiking to see incredible vistas; viewing wildlife up close; the comradie with other college kids – we were all cheerleaders of the parks and of our country as we welcomed visitors from around the world. Their comments assured us that we were in a very special place.

    Visiting Glacier many years later, I was astounded to see no young people at all! Instead, the lodges, gift shops, busses and restaurants were manned with low salary East European guest workers improving their English!

    Far from being anti-immigrant, I am amazed that the Parks system could not continue employing young people from every state to be “ambassadors” if you will – it was a real loss to the crown jewels of our country: the national parks! It is high time we refinance this wonderful system.

  • joyce

    Very nice program but wish you’d asked your guests re the impact of the Supremes’ gun ruling on the atmosphere and safety of the National Parks. Pretty scary, if you ask me!

  • Helen Abegg

    It is a shame that National Parks have lost their shine, but could it be that our society has made it’s citizens expect too much without teaching them that they need to give something back?

  • Rene Kreisel

    Several years ago on an extended vacation I visited several national parks of the west. It wasn’t just Americans who visited those parks — I met Germans, Japanese, Australians, people from almost every continent. Maintaining our national parks is good business.

  • Bill

    Too bad that the entire discussion around “improving” the parks is focused on restoring roads, parking lots, bathrooms, etc. It seems that our parks are experienced more like Disneyworld than wild lands. Probably a very small percentage of people actually get out of the visitor centers and take to the trails, and that’s sad. I’m all for spending money on the national park system, but lets improve it by acquiring more spectacular natural areas. We’ve paved over enough of this country already.

  • Frederic C.

    Unless we are resigned to the boom and bust cycle, spending on our national parks should not be linked to it.

    Although, to see the parks decay and revitalize is a testament to the impermanence of Man and the will of mankind to redouble our efforts to create.

  • Irene

    On our inaugural retirement trip last fall/winter, we visited many western national parks. We were apalled at the conditions we saw — bridges literally crumbling, terrible bathroom facilities, overgrown trails, lack of education programs, invasive weed infestations. It made us furious to remember George W’s campaign promise to address the huge backlog of park maintenance – what a liar. And now Arnold S. wants to close all the state parks in California, when every park we visited was packed with people. I suspect he wants to sell them off to rich developers.

    All of these parks are irreplaceable and priceless treasures that belong to the American people. It’s imperative we take care of them.

    We are also extremely distressed that it’s now legal to carry loaded weapons in national parks and “refuges”. What on earth were they thinking????!!!! This needs to be rescinded ASAP. Will it take a tragedy?

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