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Boomer Bytes #66 National Parks: They’re Ours

Editor’s Note: Below is another column in Steve Canipe’s series called Boomer Bytes. The column, as the title suggests, will focus on a variety of topics that may be of interest to baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964. But Canipe also hopes to start a conversation with younger generations, too. Check out an introduction and Canipe’s (first self-titled) column here.

National Parks –They Are Ours

By Steve Canipe


Starting on the 18th of April 2015 and running through the 26th of April, we are celebrating National Parks in the United States. Living in North Carolina, we are lucky to have a number of national parks and national monuments. According to the National Parks website, we have 10 national areas either totally or partially in North Carolina. The better known ones are our own Blue Ridge Parkway, Great Smokey Mountains, and the two National Seashores of Hatteras and Lookout. But don’t forget the Overmountain Victory Trail or the Appalachian Trail or the Trail of Tears.

We have two of the top three visited attractions in the Park System in 2014. The Blue Ridge Parkway ranked second with 13,941,749 visitors. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was third at 10,099,276 visitors. The Golden Gate Recreational area in California was first with a few over 15 million visitors.

All totaled the numbers of visitors and the economics of the areas managed by the National Park Service in North Carolina are mind-boggling. The full report is found at (http://www.nature.nps.gov/socialscience/docs/NPSVSE2013_final_nrss.pdf) but a figure showing general data numbers is showing below:

10 National Parks16,710,759 visitors to national parks (in 2014)$1,040,100,000 economic benefit from national park tourism (in 2013)2,880 National Register of Historic Places listings

168,738 hours donated by volunteers

2 National Heritage Areas

13 National Natural Landmarks

38 National Historic Landmarks

1 World Heritage Site

2,808,852 objects in national park museum collections

23 threatened and endangered species in national parks (in 2013)

Figure1. Numbers related to NC and National Park administered areas. (http://www.nps.gov/state/customcf/bythenumbers/nc.pdf)

During National Park week opening weekend (18th and 19th April), it is possible to visit any of the parks that normally charge admission for free. We are lucky in North Carolina in that many of our parks are admission free. The only park unit that charges an entrance fee is Wright Brothers Memorial. Some other parks have fees associated with attractions in the area. For example the Carl Sandburg house and the light houses at Cape Lookout and Hatteras. But if you plan trips to other parks, where fees are charged, during this weekend you can get in for free.

Many of us boomers have always visited our national park areas. But this is not the case for the Millennials (our children: 1982 – 2004) and this is causing some concern. The president of the National Parks Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving and showcasing our National Parks, told NBC News in 2013, “Our national parks are beloved but the reality is that the consumers of national parks today have been …baby boomers. The millennial generation behind them was the first group to grow up in the digital world and they didn’t do the proverbial trip to the national parks when they were kids. Those are missed opportunities.” (http://www.today.com/money/secure-future-national-parks-look-beyond-aging-baby-boomers-6C9748610)

What can we do to help ensure that our parklands are well funded and maintained? With younger visitors not coming as often, they may be less inclined to support taxes for the park areas. I am using park areas because the areas administered by the National Park Service include more than just parks. It also includes national monuments, national sea and lakeshores, historic sites and preserves, trails and parkways, battlefields and military parks. There are officially 407 units located now in all the states since 2013 with the creation in Delaware of the First State National Monument. There are also units in Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico as well as all the units around the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

We can help through volunteering. Back in Boomer Bytes #11 (https://www.hcpress.com/things-to-know/boomer-bytes-11-volunteering.html), I suggested some ways for those interested in doing some travel or being otherwise engaged in the National Parks. There is a program called V.I.P. – Volunteers-in-Parks. There is a national database for work including outside the park system at Volunteer.gov. You can put in your requirements and see if there is an opportunity. These opportunities tend to be short-term, or longer term like the one day per week I spent at Wupatki National Monument in Flagstaff, Arizona for about three years. Remember if you are interested in traveling you can sometimes find housing or take a travel trailer – there are lots of options for doing volunteer work in the park system. .

Have you ever wondered when our park system was started? (http://www.nps.gov/aboutus/history.htm) On 1 March 1872, Congress established Yellowstone National Park in what was then the Territories of Wyoming and Montana “…as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people” and placed it under exclusive control of the Secretary of the Interior where it still remains. When Yellowstone National Park was formed as the first park, it kicked off a worldwide park movement in numerous countries. Currently there are more than 100 countries with over twelve hundred national parks or park-like entities.

It was not until 1916 that President Wilson acted to create the National Park Service (NPS) that we know today, but the administration remained within the Interior Department which had been originally tasked to preserve Yellowstone National Park. When it was first formed, the NPS was to administer the 35 areas which existed at the time. According to the National Park website there are now more than 20 thousand employees who care for the more than 400 areas administered by the Service.

Jobs in the NPS are notoriously hard to get and the pay is not great. According to a crowd-sourced site called Glassdoor.com .(http://www.glassdoor.com/Salary/National-Park-Service-Salaries-E41328.htm) and the Human Capital site (http://www.payscale.com/research/US/Employer=National_Park_Service_Park/Salary), yearly pay for the most often seen employees, the rangers, ranges from about $26 thousand for an interpretative ranger to nearly $58 thousand for a law enforcement ranger Others that are important and who are often forgotten – the maintenance workers’ salary ranges from $23 thousand to $58 thousand — or about the same as an interpretative ranger who typically must have a college degree.

I’m not suggesting that a salary nearing $60 thousand is insignificant but if there was a family to support and kids to send to college, and only one worker in the family, it could be a pretty tight budget situation. But the lowest paid maintenance workers, if they are the only wage earner and married with two children, would be below the federally designated 2015 poverty level, and only slightly above the poverty level with same situation but only one child.

Yet there are always more applicants than there are positions available. This is especially true in the “big” parks like Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Great Smokey Mountains. So why do folks want to do this? I was privileged to be a short term, temporary ranger at Wupatki National Monument in Arizona about 15 years ago. It was a great job and I really loved doing it. But I was receiving my North Carolina Teacher Retirement so I did not need the money to put a roof over my head or food in my mouth.

A number of former military members like the work, it gets them outside and in contact with people. In addition, they receive extra points during the hiring process for their military experience just like any Civil Service job.

Why do we need to keep funding the NPS? I can a share a personal experience of a connection to the natural world, which is, I believe, one of the best reasons. It can give us peace. When I was a student at App State in the late 1960s, I remember having a difficult time studying for my Organic Chemistry final exam during Spring quarter. I needed to make at least a 90 on the exam in order to make a B in the course. I was stressed, to say the least. I remember on a spring day before the exam, driving out to the Blue Ridge Parkway near Price Lake, pulling over onto the grass, rolling my window down, and studying for that exam. The gentle breeze and the singing birds helped me release my tensions and concentrate on learning all the organic compounds and formulae that I needed to know. It must have worked because I did well on the exam (more than 90) and ended up making a B in the course!!

The 2015 Fiscal Year budget for the National Park Service is slightly over $2 billion (http://www.nps.gov/aboutus/upload/FY-2015-Greenbook-Linked.pdf). This is certainly “real” money but actually pales in comparison with the military budget. To put this number in perspective, the newest jet in the fleet, the joint military use F-35 Lightning II, average cost is nearly $200 million per each. So thinking of the amount of dollars for the NPS in the federal budget, if it were all devoted to the military coffers, it would only buy about 11 of the F-35 fighters!! Mindboggling to say the least. I am in no way suggesting that we don’t need the planes, I just want to have you dear reader think of the bigger picture and not concentrate on just the $2 billion figure and think it is humongous.

What are your thoughts on our National Park system? Do you plan to visit any of our local park units or go further afield during National Park Week? How do you as a Boomer see your role in helping support the parks, or do you? This is not meant to be 20 questions but to get you to think about a treasure that the United States shared with the world back in 1872 with the creation of Yellowstone National Park. Please put your thoughts in the space below or send them to me via email to boomerbytes@yahoo.com I encourage you to go out and enjoy a park this week in honor of the National Park Week!! (http://www.nps.gov/npweek/)