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America's national parks face challenges

Shifting climates and needed upkeep are issues facing America’s treasured spots.

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In one sense, the parks’ future is tied to the reduction of greenhouse gases worldwide. But the parks also could benefit from other steps to help them adapt to the changes, Mr. Wenzler says. Coastal wetlands could be restored to buffer the effects of sea-level rise and storm surges. Reducing air pollution would strengthen forests and help them withstand expected longer droughts. Many park advocates say new corridors of land will be needed to connect existing Western parks and help animals and plant life move northward.

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Finding money to restore and repair the parks won’t be easy during the current fiscal crisis. But delaying will only raise the cost. “It’s just like your house. If you don’t do that routine maintenance, you’re going to have a big bill staring at you. And the bill is growing,” Mr. Repanshek says.

The maintenance challenges are huge. The NPS’s 58 national parks and 333 monuments and historic sites contain some 680 water-treatment and wastewater systems, 505 dams, 1,804 bridges and tunnels, 8,500 miles of roads, 775 campgrounds, and 12,250 miles of trails, as well as 84.6 million acres of land. “Many national parks are little cities unto themselves,” says Phil Voorhees, a senior fellow at the NPCA.

Staffing levels at the parks continue to be a concern, Repanshek says. The Blue Ridge Parkway, designed by a landscape architect to show off the beauty of the terrain, doesn’t have a landscape architect on its staff. The Grand Canyon, a geological wonder, doesn’t have an on-staff geologist. There’s no volcanologist at volcanic Mt. Rainier. Dinosaur National Monument once had a staff of three paleontologists; it now has one. While research projects can be done by outsiders, “Why gut the research arm of the National Park Service?” he asks.

Although California is expected to close about 100 of its state parks as part of its fiscal belt-tightening, no one expects the NPS to have to resort to such drastic measures. “We can keep the gates open. But that’s not enough,” says Richard West Sellars, author of “Preserving Nature in the National Parks: A History.” “It doesn’t recognize the value of the parks. And it doesn’t give the public an ability to [fully] enjoy the parks and understand them more.”

Despite the immense problems that confront the parks, their treasures are still largely intact and are often awe-inspiring. Mr. Sellars recently spent time hiking in the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone’s northeast corner. “The appearance of that place is probably very much like it was 2,000 years ago,” he says. “It’s kind of a primeval scene. It’s a marvelous site.”

Editor’s note: To read an interview with filmmaker Ken Burns, click here.

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