Despite the many threats to the country's national parks - including a multibillion-dollar maintenance backlog, development along park borders and global climate change - a panel of experts on Friday was heartened by continued public support and respect for America's great outdoors.
"Even during these tough economic times we saw visitation increase by 4 percent," said Theresa Pierno, executive vice president of the National Parks Conservation Association. "It tells us how important they are to the American public."
Pierno was one of four panel members Friday morning who discussed the future of the National Park Service as part of the 20th annual Society of Environmental Journalists conference, a five-day event hosted by the University of Montana.
Other panel members were NPS director Jon Jarvis, who was appointed to the post last year by President Barack Obama; Dayton Duncan, writer, documentary filmmaker and co-producer of "The National Parks: America's Best Idea"; and Holly Fretwell, a Montana State University professor and economist.
A $9 billion backlog of maintenance projects continues to grow within the National Park Service. Half of that amount represents road repairs, Jarvis said. Only $2.8 billion is for "critical systems" such as wastewater treatment plants.
The Park Service dedicates $250 million annually to fix these problems, "but we're losing ground at a rate of around $650 million a year," he said.
The NPS generates around $250 million a year in fee collections. Unlike the Bush administration, Jarvis said he doesn't support increased fees to generate additional revenue, and is afraid it might discourage people from visiting parks.
Instead, he wants the annual revenue to begin generating interest rather than sitting in the U.S. Treasury, and suggested developing a large endowment to pay for maintaining national parks into the future.
"We need to make sure the national parks are getting the kind of funding that they need," Pierno said.
While the "federal government ultimately must take responsibility for funding the national parks," she added that partnering with adjacent landowners, concessionaires, corporations, advocacy groups and foundations can add resources without driving up costs.
Fretwell, the only Montanan on the panel, encouraged more local control. Budget decisions made at the highest level are more easily influenced by politics, she said, and funding daily maintenance and park operations isn't popular because it doesn't get public leaders re-elected.
"They get re-elected for cutting ribbons and putting resources into new ideas," she said, encouraging the National Park Service to "look at the managers in the park and the devoted employees who are interested in protecting the landscape and know the priorities in their unit."
Climate change, Jarvis said, is one of the greatest threats to the national park system.
Certainly the melting of glaciers in Glacier National Park is a noticeable example of how climate change affects the environment, Jarvis said, but park officials must begin looking outside park boundaries to the broader landscape to ensure preservation of the park's natural resources and wildlife.
In the past decade, the Park Service has invested in science to better understand and analyze its natural resources in order to monitor effects by climate change in the future, he said.
In addition, the NPS should act as a model for reducing carbon emissions. Already, he said, parks have started constructing LEED-certified buildings, purchasing hybrid buses and installing solar panels.
Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.