How Budget Cuts Continue to Make Us Sicker, Poorer and Less Secure


Access to National Treasures Threatened by Austerity

Featuring: Jim Northup, Retired Superintendent, Shenandoah National Park, Luray, Virginia

Photo Featuring Jim Northup

ROLE OF GOVERNMENT: Preserving National Treasures for Generations

Congress established the first National Park in 1872 in the territories of Montana and Wyoming “as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”1 Yellowstone National Park was the first of the now 417 national park sites2 across the United States and its territories. These sites preserve historic, natural, and cultural resources for future generations.
During the Eisenhower Administration, the federal government made significant investments in upgrading facilities throughout the National Park System. Today, many parks and sites rely on facilities and structures put in place in the 1950s and 1960s, with some dating back to the 1930s.3 Maintenance on the sites’ roads, bridges, trails, water systems, grounds, and buildings is often deferred, as funding continues to fall short as the number of visitors to National Parks has increased by 18 percent between 2010 and 2016.

The National Park Service’s construction account that supports large projects received just $209 million in 2017, or 62 percent less than was allocated in 2001, when adjusted for inflation. Further, funding for operations fell by 5 percent, reducing the ability for park management to appropriately staff and maintain their facilities. The National Park Service estimates that maintenance needs are roughly double the amount Congress appropriates each year, meaning that the estimated $12 billion backlog in maintenance will continue to grow rapidly without action from Congress.4

National Park Service Has $12 Billion Backlog in Maintenance, Repair Needed
(Backlog by State, in Millions of Dollars)

Source: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

Preserving Our National Treasures

In January, Jim Northup, Superintendent of Shenandoah National Park, retired after a 36 year career protecting some of our nation’s natural, cultural, and historic landmarks. As an interpretive and protection ranger, a natural resources specialist, a wildland fire and aviation specialist, a chief ranger, and then superintendent, Jim learned what it takes to preserve “the best that America has to offer.”

There are 417 individual park sites, including 59 sites with “National Park” in their name. The most famous, including Shenandoah and Yellowstone, are widely recognized for their natural beauty. However, as Jim notes, these sites are not just about recreation and family vacations. The National Park Service (NPS) also provides Americans with educational opportunities and both mental and physical health benefits.

What It Takes

In 2016 alone, 331 million people visited NPS sites across the nation and its territories.5 During their visits, they viewed national artifacts, learned from the parks’ rangers about landmarks and wildlife, and explored our natural resources. They also hiked on trails, drove on roads and bridges, and utilized public restrooms and camping grounds. To preserve these resources for future generations, the NPS must appropriately support park operations and maintenance.

“Many people travel to a national park and are blown away by the scenery, but the health of parks can’t be measured by scenery alone. They need to have resources, adequate staff, and facilities. The roads, trails, water systems, etc. need to be in excellent condition.”  “I believe Americans deserve a world class National Park System. Part of providing that experience is properly staffing the parks from rangers to interpreters and maintenance and operations staff.”

Cuts and Level Funding Build a Backlog

In 2013, Shenandoah National Park was hit hard by a five percent cut to its budget due to sequestration. At the time, Jim was serving as Superintendent and saw firsthand the impact of cuts on the NPS. Overnight, the cut reduced the number of park rangers and staff that could be supported, as well as the length of the camping season. At the time Jim retired, years of flat funding had resulted in similar staffing reductions.

“While funding remained flat, our costs did not. So, year after year, we had to find places in our budget where we could cut with the least impact. Over time, it adds up.”

With tightening budgets, pressure built to keep rangers in what Jim refers to as “front country,” where most of the park’s visitors remain for their visits. With that, there was a reduction in the number of back country rangers, reducing the park’s ability to train visitors on the proper use of the park’s resources and the number of patrols to enforce park regulations.

Jim was also forced to reduce the number of interpretive rangers, which affected the NPS’s education and outreach efforts. These rangers help people navigate the park, work in visitor centers, lead talks, and travel to local schools to educate students about our natural resources and conservation.

As the size of Jim’s staff declined, the costs of deferred maintenance continued to build.

“When I retired from Shenandoah in January, there was a $90 million maintenance backlog, including sorely needed renovations to Skyline Drive, other roadways, drainage and water systems, historic structures, and trails. Trails are very expensive to upkeep, contrary to popular belief.”

Without a deal to raise the budget caps, it will be difficult for Congress to appropriate the funding necessary to begin to address NPS maintenance backlogs. Jim argues that it is our government’s obligation to preserve the park sites for future generations:

“These are our nation’s most sacred places. Preserving them in all their glory requires a real investment but it is our duty to future Americans.”


1. https://www.nps.gov/aboutus/history.htm
2. https://www.nationalparks.org/connect/blog/how-many-national-parks-are-there
3. https://www.cbpp.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/5-19-17bud_parks.pdf
4. https://www.cbpp.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/5-19-17bud_parks.pdf
5. https://www.nps.gov/subjects/socialscience/annual-visitation-highlights.htm