The Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area could become a national park.
The Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, which straddles New Jersey and Pennsylvania, is home to an abundance of outdoor recreational activities and wildlife.

Editorial report: National Park Service budget cuts are shortsighted and counterproductive 

| December 7, 2023

In September, my husband and I went on a road trip to visit our older son in Columbia, Mo. 

Our trip took us through six states. We made it a point to make many stops along the way, including at whimsical roadside attractions like those in Casey, Ill., home of the world’s largest rocking chair and wind chime, among many other oversized items.

More memorable though were our visits to six different sites run by the National Park Service, including three different ones related to Abraham Lincoln, including the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park, in Hodgenville, Ky., and the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial, in Lincoln City, Indiana.

We also visited the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park in Ohio, which explains the fascinating history of the aviation pioneers the Wright brothers, as well Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.

At each location, we were struck at the deep knowledge and dedication displayed by National Park Service staff members. The exhibits were richly informative (especially at the Arch!) and the grounds were well maintained. 

It was, far and away, our greatest immersion in the National Park Service system in one swoop. 

We came away feeling a sense of pride in these historic gems that the country has to offer.

Alarmingly, though, we now come to learn that all of that is in danger. 

The National Parks Conservation Association is warning about steep budget cuts to the National Park Service adopted by the House of Representatives. The fiscal year 2024 spending bill cuts $433 million, or 12.5 percent, from the Park Service. 

As the association notes, “This reduction could mean as many as 1,000 fewer staff to ensure visitor experience and safety, shuttered facilities and fewer resources to protect our beloved natural and culturally historic sites.”

In our backyard in the Poconos, we benefit from living near the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. With its trails, waterfalls and scenic areas, the DWGNRA welcomed more than four million visitors in 2022. 

The recreation area, like other Park Service sites, has been the subject of funding backlogs. (Read more: Childs Park reopening eyed for 2024 after yearslong closure for repairs.) 

Full disclosure: The recreation area has a special place in my heart because it’s where my future husband proposed to me!

In the four-state Delaware River watershed, there are 10 other Park Service units, ranging from Independence Park to Valley Forge to Hopewell Furnace, in Elverson, Pa. (Not all are necessarily national parks. Some are wild and scenic rivers, some are national historic sites or national historic trails, for example.)

As it is, these sites have struggled to keep up with visitor and maintenance demands, especially as people turned to outdoor recreation during the height of the Covid pandemic.

Between 2012 and 2022, visitation grew by 10 percent while staffing declined by 13 percent, according to the National Parks Conservation Association. Today, the Park Service has 2,600 fewer staff members than in 2011.

Can you imagine then what a 12.5 percent budget cut could mean?

As Theresa Pierno, president and chief executive officer for the National Parks Conservation Association notes: “Funding cuts of this magnitude would devastate the Park Service, leading to severe staffing cuts at a time when visitation to parks soars and climate change continues to drastically alter their landscapes. National parks are part of our American identity and mean so much to so many.”

The budget bill’s prospects in the Senate are unclear. 

As Edward Stierli, the association’s Mid-Atlantic senior regional director, points out, even if Congress adopts a flat budget, it amounts to a cut for the Park Service because of rising operating costs. 

It means it’s likely that positions and other cuts could happen at almost every site anyway.

The national park system covers 85 million acres at 423 units, including 136 historical parks or sites, 84 national monuments, 63 national parks, 31 national memorials, 25 battlefields or military parks, and 84 otherwise designated national park units. Visitation in 2021 was close to 300 million people. 

Park Service staff members are stewards of all of these places and keep visitors safe. If there are cutbacks in hours and access, who will the public rely on to learn more about a particular site? Or call on in case of an emergency? 

I’m not naïve enough to say that the Park Service should have a limitless budget. Certainly, we all want to maximize the return on our tax dollars. 

But a visit to a National Park Service site is a meaningful, enriching experience, whether it’s on a grand scale like a Yellowstone National Park or a more modest site like the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial in Philadelphia.

These sites preserve and promote our past, protect natural resources and help to educate the public about our history. 

They are themselves national treasures that deserve our support.

To borrow from a renowned MasterCard commercial:

The Park Service’s budget? $3.6 billion 

The percentage of the total federal budget? Less than one-fifteenth of 1 percent.

The amount of economic activity generated for each dollar invested? $15.

The experience of visiting one of its sites? Priceless.

Feel like making your voice heard about this issue?

Here are the federal representatives in the Delaware River watershed, courtesy of the Delaware River Basin Commission:

Meg McGuire

Meg McGuire

Meg McGuire has been a journalist for 30 years in New York and Connecticut. She started in weekly newspapers and moved to full-time work in dailies 25 years ago. She knows about the tectonic changes in journalism firsthand, having been part of what was euphemistically called a "reduction in force" six years ago. Now she's working to find new ways to "do" the news as an independent online publisher of news about the Delaware River, its watershed and its people.

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