National Parks Are a Top International Attraction But Need Support

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On August 18, the National Parks Conservation Association held its annual visit to a national park site for Congressional staff to dig into how public policy is impacting these leading attractions for international visitors.

The group, which included both office and committee staff from the House and Senate, especially from members on committees with jurisdiction over public lands, visited the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park in Georgetown in the District of Columbia.

The C & O Canal is a top attraction drawing almost five million visitors a year although its operating budget and staff equivalents are below what it was 10 years ago in constant dollars, just as is the case throughout the National Park Service.

On a national level, annual park operations are down $90 million in the last five years, construction investments are down 50%, and the infrastructure backlog is $12 billion of which $6 billion is for roads, bridges, and other transportation elements.

The C & O  goes over 180 miles and traverses Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, and Washington, DC.  There are over 1300 historic structures, a walkable towpath, and the serenity of its waters on this piece of Americana.

The C & O was an early means of transport for the movement of commerce first envisioned by George Washington and saved from destruction by conservationists led by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas in 1938.  It was added to the National Park Service in 1971.

This is typical of the gems in the National Park System, which pull so many global visitors to America.

This is the centennial year of the National Park Service, but the National Park Service Centennial Act (HR 4680) has not yet been enacted.  This bill offers a challenge fund which will help address the infrastructure backlog, using private sector contributions to help reduce it.

Additionally, it sets up a new endowment for long term needs, including maintenance; increases the authorization ceiling for the Volunteers in the Parks Program; and adds non-administrative funding for the National Parks Foundation.

Inbound tour operators should communicate their support of this legislation to House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rob Bishop, Republican of Utah, and Ranking Member Raul Grijalva, Democrat of Arizona.

In addition to the Centennial bill, it is also imperative to continue to watch appropriations bills for how the national parks are funded for operating funds and further reduction of the infrastructure backlog.

With a major transportation funding bill having recently been passed, it will be the next Congress or later before there will be a chance to see more reduction in this backlog.  Happily, both major party candidates, Clinton and Trump, are on record supporting more infrastructure expenditures in 2017 and beyond.

Travel industry leaders should monitor these promises and endeavor to get early opportunities to meet with key leaders of the appropriate committees of jurisdiction once the new leadership assignments have been made.

IITA will keep you informed about which members of Congress have these responsibilities in the next session.