Improve Youth Employment While Maintaining Our National Parks

jaime_matyas-photoAs major-party presidential candidates say they will focus on creating more jobs in America, one wonders why there isn’t more attention given to maintaining our national parks. Every dollar invested in our National Park Service (NPS) returns $10 to the U.S. economy — an extraordinary return by any standard. Yet our parks have a nearly $12 billion maintenance backlog, and many of our nation’s youth are in need of the jobs that park conservation would both provide and stimulate.

Those jobs are not menial. They are an entryway to a career. That’s clear from surveys showing that seven out of 10 alumni of the Student Conservation Association, which provides high school and college students with summer work experience restoring parks, go on to careers or studies in conservation and sustainability.

We are overlooking a triple play: the opportunity to create jobs, improve our parks and spread the economic impact to every state, every territory and the District of Columbia. The economic impact is measurable and significant.

In 2015, park visitors spent an estimated $16.9 billion in local gateway regions while visiting NPS lands. Those expenditures, according to the NPS, which celebrates its centennial this year, supported 295,000 jobs — especially in hotels, restaurants, transportation and other amenities associated with park visits — and $32 billion in economic output in the national economy.

According to data for the most recently completed fiscal year, NPS lands in more than half of the states (26) have deferred maintenance exceeding $100 million each. NPS lands in California and the District of Columbia each have deferred maintenance exceeding $1 billion. And in Puerto Rico, which is undergoing an extreme financial crisis, the deferred maintenance exceeds $330 million. The impact of eliminating those backlogs would be magnified further by the $10 return on every $1 invested in the NPS.

Interestingly, the parts of the country with the highest unemployment rates also have a stunning combined deferred maintenance backlog. As of June, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, seven states and the District of Columbia had unemployment rates of 6 percent of more – Alabama, West Virginia, Illinois, Louisiana, New Mexico, Nevada and Alaska – and the unemployment rate in Puerto Rico exceeded 11 percent. The NPS lands in those areas have a combined deferred maintenance backlog of more than $2.1 billion — with five of the nine areas having backlogs exceeding $100 million each.

[Related: Service Programs Try to Launch Opportunity Youth into Careers, College]

The impact of underfunding is substantial as well. The Pew Charitable Trusts note the need to address “rotting historic buildings, eroding trails and roads, and outdated electrical and water systems, among other issues.” The National Parks Conservation Association states: “Budget cuts and insufficient funds in recent years have led to crumbling facilities and too few rangers and other staff to serve visitors and protect cultural and natural resources.”

It’s the need to protect cultural and natural resources that holds such potential for our nation’s young adults, because it involves skills and interests that we at the Student Conservation Association find pronounced among them: a desire to improve the environment, a readiness to do hard work, the pleasure of working outdoors and the satisfaction of achievement as a team. Working to protect those resources engenders such other attributes as an awareness of nature and the environment and a sense of responsibility for them, an ability to set shared goals and engage others in reaching them, identification of personal passions, and thinking and planning about the future. And it produces dramatic results on the ground, typically habitat restoration, erosion control, invasive species eradication, endangered species research, and trail maintenance and construction.

The need comes at a time of greater interest in national parks than ever. National park visitation in 2015 exceeded 307 million visits. Fifty-seven parks set new records for annual recreation visits, according to the NPS, and 11 parks had more than 5 million recreation visits in 2015.

That record visitation underscores the public interest in our national parks and their importance as a public resource. It reinforces the need to maintain them — both to preserve them, in light of the heavy interest and use, and to enhance the experience of visiting them. It also reaffirms the potential of all NPS lands to generate increased visitation and the economic development stimulated by it.

Our nation’s parks are a public resource to be preserved and enjoyed, but preservation includes maintenance. As the National Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary, a welcome present for the American people would be to dramatically reduce the NPS’s deferred maintenance backlog while stimulating jobs and the resulting economic benefits.

Jaime B. Matyas is president and CEO of the Student Conservation Association, the national leader in youth service and stewardship.

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