This week, PBS will broadcast Ken Burns’s new six-part series on the national parks, a chronicle of the rich 158-year history of what the series calls “America’s Best Idea” — setting aside remarkable places and landscapes for future generations to enjoy.
Mr. Burns’s documentary makes clear that no one should take that idea or the park system it created for granted. From the start, the project has been encumbered by political shortsightedness and inadequate financing, with the parks themselves constantly threatened by the encroachment of the world around them.
The parks’ future is the concern of a major new report from the National Parks Second Century Commission — an independent body organized and financed by the National Parks Conservation Association. It offers an unsparing look at the many problems that threaten the parks and sensible remedies for addressing them.
As permanent as the parks may look, their financing has always depended on the waxing and waning interests of various presidents and Congresses. Chronic operating deficits are one result. Right now the backlog of unmet maintenance and construction needs — repairs to crumbling bridges, roads, buildings, trails, sewer systems — exceeds $8 billion.
The Park Service’s annual budget of $2.4 billion is less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the total federal budget, and more generous annual appropriations would certainly seem within reach. But the commission would also create a tax-exempt national parks endowment to attract private money and help free park budgets from the ebb and flow of Congressional outlays.
Making sure that the system lives up to its inherent promise involves more than money. Given new threats from global warming and invasive species, the commission wants the service to strengthen its scientific capabilities. It also urges the service to broaden its educational mission to reach more young people.
The report asks Congress to be alert to the possibility of new parks. But the emphasis, rightly, is on strengthening what we have. Parks like Yellowstone and Everglades National Park are part of larger ecosystems that Congress and state and local authorities must also protect from needless development.In some ways, it’s a miracle that the park system is as resilient as it is. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has said that he will take the commission’s recommendations seriously, and we hope President Obama will, too. The “best idea” needs to be protected and celebrated.