The United States is spending less and less on the National Park Service. As I have written in the past, the NPS is not generating the national deficit but it is paying the price for it. In 2013 the NPS budget was $180 million less than the prior year. This cut in funding comes at a time when the NPS has $12 billion dollars of deferred maintenance within the parks themselves.
Even the premier national parks are suffering. While at a board meeting of the Student Conservation Association at Grand Teton I was shocked at the state of Jackson Lodge. While the setting remains spectacular, the lodging at retail was almost $300/night, in a state of disrepair which included an apparent routine sewer backup into all 8 rooms in our section, and obsolete food and beverage offerings.
But beyond renewing lodging and other facilities that both facilitate visits and mitigate visitor effects on the parks, the park system is facing the changing demographics of the Millennials. In a major speech on June 9th of this year the Director of the Parks, Jonathan B. Jarvis, confronted this change, “Our young people are immersed in technology and unfortunately have little interaction with the natural world, and increasingly they don’t even own automobiles.”
During the NPS’s 100 year history the problem was bringing the public to the parks. Now Jarvis talks more about bringing the parks to the public through social media and urban outreach. And without Millennial interest support in Congress for more spending on the parks could further decline.
It is a two pronged intertwined problem – the lack of funding from appropriations and relevance to the public. On a hike at Grand Teton a senior park ranger showed me two particular examples. She challenged me to look around and count the number of people under 35. They were there, but in small numbers and ethnically white. Millennials are the most multi-racial group in our recent history.
One of her explanations that was initially shocking was the absence of Internet connectivity. She pointed out that where prior youth visitors might take or draw a picture of wildlife or scenery, Millennials grew frustrated when they could not post an Instagram photo immediately. Silent contemplation impressed prior generations, connectivity is essential for the rising generations. My initial angst at this change gave way to the obvious opportunity. If connectivity attracts Millennials who post a picture that presents a park to 600 other Millennials you are not only relevant, but marketing to your most important growth demographic.
On two occasions we had to move aside on the path as Millennials ran past on extreme trail runs complete with specialized gear. When I asked the ranger about that trend, she pointed out that a major component of that activity was organized races. How can NPS with its conservation focus host extreme sports?
With the entitlement budget (Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security) on auto-pilot chewing up discretionary appropriations the NPS faces a downward appropriations spiral. While pursuing philanthropy and a Congressional endowment as additional resources, Jarvis announced that the Park Service would have to solicit more help from private businesses. This is truly a evolutionary idea coming from the most liberal administration since President Carter and one that tends to view private enterprise with suspicion.
How to invite the private sector to expand beyond the existing concessionaire system? How to deploy its expertise in marketing to Millennials and the parks? How to renew Jackson Lodge without a Holiday Inn Express footprint changing the iconic buildings? How to renew park restaurants and stores without Chili’s and Walmart billboards? How to change with the times, while preserving the public trust?
Jarvis’s clear statements that the NPS has to turn to the private sector provides an opening. In order to convert conservatives and Millennials to fans of the NPS, the expansion of private sector capital and expertise is essential. Essential to create the experiences Millennials seek and essential to Republican support for reform.
If Jarvis is successful in philanthropy and private partnerships, the NPS may create a new bipartisan way forward for conservation in the 21st century.