August 25th marks the 100th birthday of the National Park Service. In observance of the anniversary, St. Louis on the Air talked with those who have had experience inside the parks about what exactly could be done to ensure the parks' sustainability (financial, environmental and otherwise) amid calls to privatize the parks.
Joining the program was Bill Lowry, a professor of political science with Washington University, who worked as a seasonal park ranger at Yosemite National Park. He also wrote the book “Repairing Paradise, The Restoration of Nature in America’s National Parks.”
“By the middle of this century, if we don’t do anything about it, Glacier National Park probably won’t have any glaciers, Everglades National Park probably won’t have fresh water because it will be covered by salt water from the rising seas,” Lowry said. “I spend a lot of time in Rocky Mountain National Park and I see the effects of the pine beetles on the forests in the Rockies whenever I go out there. There are now two generations of pine beetles every summer when we used to have just one … that’s not to say anything about the fire we have out West too.”
Mike Owens, lawyer and former KSDK reporter, also joined the show by phone from Glacier National Park, where he has spent the summer driving a bright red "jammer" up and down the park's famed Going-to-the-Sun Road.
“I was out here last summer hiking and I talked to a red bus driver and he said ‘This is the best. Look at my office, these mountains, these valleys,’” Owens said. “Everybody is generally in a good humor. The guests on the bus, they’re having a good time. As a former television reporter, I get to talk a whole bunch with a captive audience. It’s absolutely perfect for me.”
Owens also described a fungal infection attacking trees in the park and concerns over climate change as glaciers melt — though you can’t see the changes in one summer alone, the worry still hangs heavy.
In addition to concerns about climate change and how to fund the preservation of changing ecosystems in the parks, there is also a concerning $12 billion infrastructure back-log. Increasing visitors (315 million people will visit the parks this year) and a taxpayer-funded budget that hasn’t changed in the past decade have left parks scrambling to repair roads and make sure bathrooms are up-to-date.
Many are asking: How do we keep the parks financially sustainable? Some have ventured the idea that states should take over management of the parks while others have said that the national parks should be privatized. Lowry is not a fan of either of these ideas.
“The private market is great at providing a lot of goods and services, but national parks are not one of them,” Lowry said. “Adam Smith even said that back in the day: ‘the parks should belong to the crown.’ Private enterprise is motivated and oriented to the bottom line in a very short time period but national parks should be there for generations to come.”
Lowry said examples for keeping the parks financially sustainable may lie in examples of public-private partnerships that exist closer to home, like Forest Park Forever or CityArchRiver. He said that the national park system could also look to Missouri because of the example it sets using a “conservation tax” to fund Missouri state parks.
“Missouri has one of the best state park systems in the country,” Lowry said.
As a political science professor at Washington University, Lowry has devoted some of his academic study to seeing how such proposals might fare on the ballot. He said that of the ballot measures regarding funding public spaces from 1988 to 2014, three-quarters of those ballot measures passed.
“Americans really care about public spaces,” Lowry said.
That was certainly evident after St. Louis on the Air put out the call for listeners’ best national park photos. Scroll through the slideshow at the top of story to see all of the photos from the parks we received, or take a scan through a few selected photos below. Have photos from a park you don’t see mentioned? Email firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @STLonAir with your best shot.
Arches National Park
Glacier National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park
Zion National Park
Ozark National Scenic Riverways, Alley Spring, Jacks Fork River (right here in Missouri)
Want to read more about St. Louis’ relationship to national parks? We’ve got you covered.
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.